UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.


FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.


 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)”

  1. The word that comes to mind is “baffling.” Not only the plot, but even the themes are obscure. (Parasites? Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”? Switched identities?) Not only did my theater have a walk-out, the guy muttered “this is killing me” as he was leaving. We have a definite candidate here.

  2. Upstream color is a film that tries too hard. There are several problems with it: one is that the director/”actor”/producer/editor/cinematographer/writer/music scorer crammed it with “weird for weird’s sake”, the end result being a piece so inintelligible that it can hardly be a story. It is obvious that Carruth is infuenced by many good directors; one of them is David Lynch, however,in all of Lynch’s films, surrealistic in style as most of them are, there is a story, a baseline, an order in the chaos. It is easy to put a lot of “weird” situations together and call it a film, but human beings need to relate in order to react, to be touched, for us to find a meaning in the work the artist attemts to convey. This movie leaves one cold. There doesn’t seem to have a human touch. I think that Carruth’s need to control most of the movie’s production himself reflects his overcrowding of senselessness (not Lynch’s absurdity) in the movie claiming it is Art, which takes me to another of the film’s weakest points: the acting is overdone (though Amy Seimetz alone makes the film watchable), but Carruth’s especially; he “acts like he wants to act naturally”. In other words, his acting results very artificial. He wants to seem real, and the result is a forced character, quite unlikable (or perhaps that was the point of the character? to be unlikable?). Every time he was in a scene he ruined the flow of the movie for me. I never read reviews before watching a movie, sometimes I do after. This time I did and it was no surprise that this is the work of a very big ego (which is quite evident in the film). I think Upstream Color could have been good, but then again, I enjoy Terrence Malick’s work (this movie boldly steals Malick’s beautiful lyrical style). All in all, if the film had had a real story one can stand on (of course, an artist can say one just didn’t get it, right? but then, the piece becomes just too personal to be appreciated), and if it had not had Carruth in the starring role, repeating his Primer mistake, then it could have been good. The idea sounds good, it only needed humanity.

  3. The lesson here, as the lesson often is, is never form a deep, long-distance symbiosis with a pig.

  4. Beyond my above joke of a reply, I actually quite liked this film.

    Carruth’s first film, Primer, is rightly regarded as a triumph of extremely micro-budget film-making. Made for next to nothing, yet very well filmed, it was a movie whose complexity is almost impossible to fathom on first viewing. Maybe you got it the first time, but you can’t fail the film for not being technically correct on its premise.

    Upstream Color is much more approachable. The actual background of the film is still hidden behind leagues of obfuscation, but that doesn’t hurt the overall theme of the film, that of broken characters trying to reconstruct their lives.

    I read a great review of these themes by a user on IMDb, which I can’t easily link to. Essentially, the film explores the idea that identity is not as self-created as we would all like to believe it is. It’s this idea that we all like to believe of ourselves as self-created beings, but everything we believe about ourselves is already influenced by the world in and of itself. The film takes the paranoid viewpoint of a mental rapist, the “Thief”, attacking it’s characters to make a point.

    We are all at the mercy of history. Long story short, our identities, the people we believe are “ourselves,” are in very large part shaped by the world we live in. This film magnifies it by suggesting that there is a malevolent force behind it. As the trailer suggests, you can try and force your story, but there is always an “upstream color.”

    That being said, the major plot point of this movie involves people being telepathically linked with pigs. That’s what’s known in “the biz” as a clumsy metaphor, and it hurts this film.

    I did like this movie. But I don’t think Carruth earned his weirdness. Thematically it makes sense, but it doesn’t matter how good your movie is, pig-symbiosis just isn’t something people will take seriously.

    Yeah, I am with Carruth. But I’m a sci-fi fan and have heard every metaphor in the book. Don’t make your next one so silly.

  5. The pigs aren’t a metaphor, they’re a plot point and a character. If it was only implied that they were somehow similar to the pigs, that would be a clumsy metaphor indeed, but in the movie there is no metaphor at all. They really do experience psychic communication with pigs. They are not “like pigs” and that is not what the movie is trying to say at all.

    The pigs are important because the two major events of the movie, the two main characters meeting/falling in love and then eventually discovering what happened to them, are instigated by their connection to the pigs. Without them it would still have to be explained.

    The only part of this movie that doesn’t make sense is how they somehow get away with murdering the farm owner. Everything else fits pretty well.

  6. Awful. Pretentious. Tedious. One hour in, no idea why I had to see almost any of it. Glad others enjoyed. “Repetitive and disjointed” says it well. What is less clear is why this is a virtue.

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