+ ‘Upstream Color’: A Movie by Shane Carruth

More often than not, I find myself greeting film credits with statements such as ‘well that was a waste of time’ or ‘I guess it could have been worse’. Upstream Color by Simon Carruth broke that predictable routine by sending my brain into a flurry of curiosity and a yearning to decode the scenes long after I’d watched it.

What Does It All Mean?
This is not a film that can fit neatly into one simple interpretation – the director himself has elaborated on what he sought to evoke in the film, telling io9:

It’s meant to be universally about all of these things that are not able to be spoken about clearly that we suspect are affecting us—whether that’s people’s religious beliefs or cosmic beliefs or even hidden biological processes. Just all of the things that make you suspect the reasoning for, ‘Why did I do that?’ Or, ‘Why am I doing this tomorrow?’ ‘Why does someone else think this way?’ It’s all of that.

Echoing Carruth, the actor who plays the sampler/pig farmer, Andrew Sensenig, says in an interview via Stand By for Mind Control:

Some think it deals with fate, some with addiction. The fact that it can draw so many interpretations and make people talk is what makes it so powerful. That’s the effect Shane wanted to create.

That’s the crux of it. It’s not a clear-cut plot, and doesn’t give the viewer an easy ride. I’m grateful for the Googling I did after the film to help guide me through the narrative. What I found most disturbing about the film was the idea that something/someone could supplant your own freedom of choice, forcing you into a routine of dull and nonsensical tasks, as well as not having a grip on the reasons for your behaviour. For example, when the piglets in the film are drowned, Kris and Jeff feel an intense sense of anger and loss, but don’t fully understand why.

This mirrors the film’s somewhat disorienting effect on the viewer – you avidly follow the scenes and yet don’t fully grasp the significance of each millisecond of what’s captured on the screen. I love the fact that the film compelled me to research other people’s views and theories.

The Influence of ‘Walden’
Thoreau’s book pervades the entire film, and while it originally wasn’t an intentional thematic device (the main reason Carruth wanted it to be the book that the victims transcribe under suggestion was because it is peaceful and would presumably not wake you from a trance), it is quite possibly the most fitting book he could have found. Carruth says that in terms of film visuals, “blue was our suggestion of control. Yellow at the end was going to be […] an awakening of some kind..”. Only after this was decided did he notice the following quote in Walden, “it may be simply the result of the prevailing blue mixed with the yellow of the sand”. This to me is almost pure poetry – his aim for the film was to make people question ‘why did I do that?’ and in fact, in the filmmaking process itself he finds himself in a similar position.

Haven’t seen it yet?

The basic plot centres around a parasite/lifeform which is transferred from worms to humans to pigs, and then back to orchids, from which a special neurotoxin can be taken from. The first scenes depict an unnamed man (‘The Thief’ as identified in the credits) who procures the neurotoxin and uses it to drug a young woman called Kris.

As well as this, we watch the thief force a small ringworm into her throat. In a form of hypnosis, her mind becomes a slave to the thief – the first instance of this is seen when he convinces her that she will not feel hunger or fatigue while drinking ice-cold water.

From there on, we watch her dazed and agreeing to a multitude of nonsensical tasks, such as transcribing Henry David Thoreau’s entire book Walden onto paper and then creating a long paper chain from each sheet. Meanwhile, the worm inside her body is growing and once she becomes fully conscious of it inside her, she cuts away at herself with a knife in the hope of releasing it.

We then meet ‘The Sampler’ who, via a blood transfusion, deworms Kris and transfers it to a pig. Via these pigs, the sampler can ‘see’ and perceive the world that their human counterpart/transfusion buddy is living through. After she returns to her normal life, she is sacked due to the unexplained absence and is now suffering from severe amnesia (she can’t recall withdrawing all the money that’s now in the thief’s possession).

Slate.com’s enormously helpful FAQ says, “The transfer of the worm establishes a connection between the victim and the pig, and the Sampler can then use the pigs to “sample” the victims’ experiences—each time he approaches a victim’s pig, he can see what’s going in that victim’s life. The Sampler is then inspired by these experiences to record music, which he sells through his record company, Quinoa Valley Rec. Co.”

As mentioned above, the pig’s pregnancy has a profound effect on Kris and her partner Jeff (another victim of the thief who she inexplicably felt a connection to, and who she ends up marrying). She is sure she’s pregnant, however this turns out not to be true. The sampler doesn’t like the way the pregnant pig gets defensive and protective of her piglets, and so he rounds them up into a canvas sack and drowns them in the nearby river.

Their deaths result in two consequences:
1) Kris and Jeff feel this mystifying sense of anger and loss, and become violent while at work. That evening they end up barricading themselves into their bathroom, clearly believing (without knowing why) the outside world is a threat to their survival. 2) The decaying process of the piglets releases the parasite/neurotoxin that has passed into them from their mother, and this then flows back into the river and absorbed by the orchids. The white orchids are now blue, and we’re back to the beginning of the cycle, as it is from the orchids that the neurotoxin is obtained.

The sampler continues to broadcast his music outwards from his pig farm, and this eventually draws Kris and Jeff to the farm itself. The crucial part here is that she feels compelled to shoot the sampler. Following that, Jeff and Kris uncover documentation of each of the thief’s victims, and send each victim a copy of Walden to help them uncover their own place in the wider narrative.

Understanding the plot is really just the first step to appreciating the film, but if you need more guidance, definitely take a read of IndieWire’s ‘Upstream Color’ Cheat Sheet.