Paranoid Activity: Upstream Color

03/27/2013 4:00 AM |

Upstream Color
Directed by Shane Carruth

Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher

Riding a crest of anticipation from a wowed and confounded Sundance, director Carruth’s long-awaited movie shouldn’t disappoint anyone looking for a new cult of enigma to succeed his self-started 2004 time-travel debut, Primer. The engineer-turned-filmmaker’s Upstream Color, which springs fully formed out of Carruth after years of head-banging over a failed larger effort, charts one woman’s outlandish downfall and then her cabin-fever relationship with a guy scraping along in disgrace. That this all occurs in a mode of sci-fi/lucid-dream-mysticism makes the film an involuted ecothriller and an allegory of agency, presented with gorgeous visuals and bewildering self-assurance.

Actor-director Amy Seimetz plays office worker Kris, the victim of a voodoo roofie that leads her to hand over her worldly savings to some hypnotist dude and gives her a tapeworm. Kris meets-cute (or -crazy) Jeff (Carruth, who also wrote, edited, shot, and scored), a sweet-hearted embezzler; they seem equally trapped and troubled but nurture one another, at least until a folie à deux takes over. Like a biology textbook written on weed, Kris’s ordeal is somehow interconnected with environmental pollution and a pig farm—call it go-green metempsychosis. Recitations from Walden are also involved; the trailer maybe makes more sense than the movie.

That sounds nuts, right? It kind of is: rather than puzzle films of different stripes like Primer or Last Year at Marienbad or Mirror—or the weirdly praised postmodern zombie jukebox of Southland Tales or CremasterUpstream Color recalls nothing so much as the comprehensive, idee-fixe system described by a paranoiac. This is exquisitely composed confusion, its cause and effect insistently circulating, its twists and turns deeply felt and intended—the opening sequences unfold with a minimum of dialogue, suspense battling with bafflement, camera angles compulsively switching up. As the movie proceeds, a momentous chord-holding sub-Eno score entrances without explaining, like locking gaze with crazy eyes.

Seimetz (whose directorial debut Sun Don’t Shine will soon be released) saves the film from being purely Carruth’s master plan and might be described as its true coauthor. Serious, wounded and sleepless, Seimetz-as-Kris commits, grounding Upstream Color in the shock of one woman’s lost-and-found existence after trauma. But there’s a limit to how much of an impact an actor can make in the movie’s concertedly odd alternate reality; it’s almost a joke when Jeff warns Kris, as she perceives conspiracies, “You’re scaring me a little bit,” after 75 minutes of a movie that can feel like the insistent but bonkers answer to a final exam written after days without sleep.

Appropriately enough, Upstream Color’s April release is anticipated by another paranoid-tending film, the Kubrick trainspotter chorus Room 237 (opens March 29). The grand schematics and tape-measure observations of Shining fanatics get a full and generally respectful airing in Rodney Ascher’s evocation of a visual Wikipedia omnibus of notions. The film demonstrates the strange habit of undertaking (and regarding) interpretation as a form of hobbyist conspiracy-theorizing, in which ideas that would have wildly varying results on the laugh test are given equal weight. Can a Carruth wiki entitled Lost Upstream be far behind?

Opens April 5