As befitting of a follow-up from Shane Carruth’s mind-melting time travel debut, Primer, Upstream Color is not a film that likes to pander – or please.
Instead, it’s an allusive, aloof and ambiguous thing that lulls you into thinking you have a grip before melting slowly through your fingers; frustrating, perhaps, but also beautifully mesmerising.
The premise starts simple enough: a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is attacked by a shadowy thief and forced to swallow a mysterious worm. In doing so, she loses her will to think freely, turning her into a child-like puppet for a man who persuades her to sell everything she owns and transfer it over to him.
It’s a stark, nightmarish beginning that soon collapses into something a lot less literal – for the thief may escape but the worm remains and must be dealt with. This is when she’s apparently summoned by a man who removes the organism and transfers it to the body of a pig.
With her life destroyed, what follows is the post-traumatic haze, which Carruth presents in a suitably abstract style of dream-like confusion.
This is upped considerably with the introduction of Jeff (played by Carruth himself, who also has creative control over every other element), who appears to have undergone the same ordeal and is drawn to her for reasons beyond his understanding.
The answer, however, appears to rest with the pigs, whose lives are starting to bleed into their own. When the pig’s piglets are killed, for instance, the couple are overwhelmed by grief for children they never had.
How is it happening? Why is this happening? These are narrative conventions that Carruth doesn’t play ball with.
Instead, he presents the film like a profound and, at times, pretentious painting, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the obscure, existentialist themes of his message, which seems to concern itself with the nature of free will and fate.
It doesn’t provide these answers, of course, but it does ask some truly remarkable questions.