I don’t think I’ve ever stared at a screen as intently as I did while watching ‘Upstream Color’, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to watch and rewatch a film so quickly as I did with ‘Upstream Color’. In fact, I watched the film twice on Saturday and then again last night. I know that this sounds like the beginning of some hefty praise (look, he loved it so much he watched it three times in two days) and yet after each viewing I was left even more unsure of what I saw, scratching my head at just how empty everything seemed to me despite sporting a premise and an atmosphere that screamed “I’M DEEP!”
Is it really?
I’m honestly at a loss as to how to go about reviewing a film that I cannot wrap my head around. It all feels so trivial too, since in retrospect the film seems so simple and so vapid and maybe that’s why I cannot fathom how absolutely mundane the whole thing really feels. It may very well be the most pretentious film I’ve seen this year.
But that isn’t to say that the film is a complete bust, for it isn’t. From a visual standpoint, the film is intoxicating (some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in any film this year or in the past decade even) and the mix of score and sounds has an alluring intensity that keeps you waiting with baited breath for the answers to be revealed. I’m just so perplexed as to how those answers are exposed. There are fewer films that make as little sense as this one, and yet I’m left dumbfounded at the idea that it is all supposed to make sense in the end.
The film’s opening, revolving around a hypnosis, injection and complete soul raping is rather entrancing to watch and completely enthralling. I was hooked and I wanted more. Sadly, once the abduction is over, the drugs ware off and our protagonist is left to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and memory, the film becomes overwhelmingly underwhelming, if that makes sense. With that fading memory lodged in the back of her mind, Kris tries to find some sort of closure or at least some sort of normalcy, but when she meets and falls for Jeff she begins to find that an unknown bond is driving them together, and that it is that bond that may completely unravel her.
This should have worked, but Shane Carruth doesn’t seem to know how to string his ideas in a logical and coherent order. He has too many ideas that culminate into one sloppy film that feels like it doesn’t have any ideas at all. The dreamlike presentation mixed with the fragmented vignettes mixed with the intersecting storylines mixed with the flashback scenarios mixed with the multiple dimensions (?) leave everything completely up in the air and deliver a startling finale that fails to make a real impact because it feels almost lazy, as if Carruth came to the end of his screenplay and realized that he didn’t tie any of the loose ends together and just decided to put three specific people in the same room and call it a day.
But things like that rarely pay off (they do at times) and here it just adds to the confusion.
I wanted to love this. Visually, it is striking, but it does NOT deliver on the promise. In fact, more often than not the film seems more intent on providing us with pretty pictures than a coherent story. Art house films have the capacity of being something profound and moving, but there are times when the construction of your ideas is so haphazard and so jumbled that they lose all desired impact. I have not seen ‘Primer’ (although the praise has me intrigued), but this film has me wondering if I should avoid it altogether.
Or is this just a serious sophomore slump?
I give this a C. I really wish I could rate it higher, and maybe in a few months things will start to make sense, but right now I applaud the ambition and the technical merits, but the end result is kind of a mess. As far as Oscar is concerned, this doesn’t have a chance, but with the Gotham Award nominations, I have a feeling that this could pop up with the critics here and there. It has some great aspects, and the critics seem to really like it. I expect it to have a hefty haul with the Spirit Awards.