Upstream Color


The human brain’s capacity for memory is far beyond anything we have thus far imagined. Smells. Sights. Sounds. Feelings – physical and emotional. All of these trigger neurons that dig into the depths of the database that is our mind. As Upstream Color shows, even hypnotic drugs cannot prevent our brain from recognizing our actions.



From the quixotic mind that brought us Primer, Upstream Color, which stars and was written/directed by Shane Carruth, follows a couple on the path to rediscovery. However, the pair (a heart-wrenchingly distant Amy Seimetz and Carruth) is unaware of what they have to rediscover, as each was the victim of an enhanced form of identity theft.

A blue flower, resembling an orchid, is being used by nefarious individuals to create a hypnotizing narcotic that affords the supplier complete control over the victim. The most effective extraction of the drug is through the maggots thriving in the soil surrounding the flower. From there, drinking something that came in contact with the maggot or inducing the maggot (as is the case for the most unfortunate of victims since it allows extended control) engulfs the host in a trance-like state that can only be fixed by the removal of the parasite.

upstream color 1

Where Primer focused more on the science behind the time travel story, Upstream Color focuses more closely on being a well made film with a character-driven story. And in most regards, it succeeds. The cinematography is mesmerizing from start to finish. Carruth clearly has an eye for filmmaking and chooses his scenery with meticulous precision and careful deliberation. The ethereal score only adds to the beauty.

A leading character, whose name is never mentioned and whose role is never fully expanded upon, spends much of the film sampling the sounds of the world. Rocks sliding across rusted metal. A handful of gravel pouring over the ground. With a slow, elongated pairing of notes in the background, the film adopts the drug-like effects and drifts into a dream state. Shockingly, this absence of flash and excitement does nothing to prevent intrigue.

The first act of the film, chronicling the use of the drug and how it is used to ruin Kris’ (Seimetz) life, is fascinating; there is no other way to put it. You are instantaneously captured by the film’s style to such an intense degree that the complexity of the story slips by you. Only once Kris breaks free from the parasite (in the most skin-crawling fashion) do you realize a third of the film has passed and the real plot is beginning.


Unfortunately, Carruth bites off a little more than he can chew in the second and third acts. His script calls for so much interpretation due to a dearth of vocal cues that the slightest hiccup completely derails your comprehension. If you are not giving your absolute, full attention, there is simply no way to follow Upstream Color.

The relationship between Kris and Jeff (Carruth) begins similarly to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but is somehow less apparent. You are able to assume Jeff’s past, but only in the most superficial sense. Carruth decides to show you events rather than tell you about them. Even when Kris and Jeff are communicating, the conversations are so broken and disjointed that only later can you begin to unravel their significance.


Once the pair starts digging into their traumatic experiences, the dialogue all but disappears. Subtle hints are dropped as Kris begins retracing her hypnotized steps. But there is simply not enough background information to really get a complete picture. Carruth is potentially doing this on purpose to keep the audience as confused as his main characters. If so, that’s a quick way to limit your fan base.

One Netflix reviewer appropriately likened Upstream Color to Tree of Life and Inception. I feel this film, however, succeeds where Tree couldn’t (read: crashed and burned) and fails where Inception succeeded. Carruth has the talent to become a leading name in film directing; he just has to release a few more pieces of information to ensure we understand him without dumbing down his films. Inquiring minds should be prepared for one hell of a puzzle because Upstream Color only provides one piece at a time.

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