Genre: Drama
Premise: A woman is kidnapped, drugged, and robbed of her life’s savings. She must now figure out how to reclaim her life, a task made easier when she meets a man on a train. Plus there are pigs.
About: Shane Carruth became a breakout sensation in the filmmaking world a decade ago when his first film, Primer, shocked Sundance and became the Grand Jury Prize Winner. The time-travelling mind-bending thriller shot for under 10 grand gave young filmmakers everywhere hope that they, too, could shoot films on the cheap and become star directors. But in the years after, Shane’s inexperience with the Hollywood system led him to dead end after dead end, unable to put together another movie. He then shocked the film world (once again) when this new film of his showed up at Sundance this year, a film no one knew he had even made. Carruth wrote, directed, and starred in the movie.
Writer: Shane Carruth.
Details: 97 minutes


Upstream Color was one of the most frustrating movies I’ve ever seen. It was a movie designed to destroy you, to make you detest it. It challenged you to be the one person in the theater who came away saying, “I liked that.” Even still, if you managed to be that person, you didn’t know why you were that person, why you liked it. Or maybe you did. Maybe you convinced yourself you did. Like Carruth’s first movie, Primer, it’s a film that makes you feel smart if you can follow along. It makes you feel superior. It’s a recipe that Carruth’s used to gain his cult following: Make the puzzle complex enough so that you feel good if you can put it together.

But there’s a difference between being a skilled puzzle maker and just throwing a bunch of pieces on the screen. In fact, I think there are many parallels here to Shane Carruth’s career and Richard Kelly’s. Both broke through with these strange puzzle-centric stories and made them jusssst weird enough that you weren’t sure if their intrigue was created on purpose or the result of pure luck. Kelly’s mess of a second film, Southland Tales, proved that it was probably the latter. And Upstream Color, in my opinion, proves the same.

Let me give you some background here. Keep in mind I heard this through the grape vine. It’s by no means fact. But I did hear it from a couple of independent sources so I’m willing to believe it. Shane came out of Primer with Hollywood in the palm of his hands. Everyone wanted to work with him. They tabbed him a young Kubrick. So Shane went around pitching a half thought-through idea about some marine biologists that was part drama, part romantic comedy, part sea adventure, etc. Nobody really understood what the movie was about so Shane went back and wrote this script called “A Topiary,” about kids who used star burst energy to create and control flying dragon-like creatures.

It was 244 pages long. (for those who are mathematically challenged, that would be a 4 hour movie)

Despite this, Shane had some big people who wanted to help him. How big? Try David Fincher. Fincher wanted to shepherd his career, guide him along, produce his films. So Shane showed him his script and then waited for the money. Except Fincher (and others) had some problems with the script. It was long and wandering and devoid of drama. They wanted to give Shane notes. Shane was SHOCKED. Shocked! I mean, are you serious? You’re not just going to give me a hundred million dollars without any strings attached and let me make my movie??? And thus began why Shane Carruth hasn’t made a movie in ten years. Cause he told guys like David Fincher to go fuck themselves.

Now some of you might be holding up your fists and screaming, “you go, girl.” “Fuck Hollywood.” Except David Fincher isn’t just anyone in the land of smog and billboards. Fincher notoriously went through hell with “the system” when he made Alien 3. It’s something that still affects him today, and why he tries to stay somewhat outside the system even as he’s working within it. In other words, Fincher is one of the few people who actually understands what it’s like to be in Shane’s shoes. He’s sympathetic. So if Shane’s having trouble with this guy, I can only imagine how he rubbed everyone else.

Now the reason I bring this up is because Upstream Color plays like a movie that nobody else but Shane has seen. You know how you screen things for friends or let friends read your scripts so that you can iron out the things that don’t make sense? Things that don’t seem to be playing the way you intended them to? This film didn’t go through that process. Or if it did, Carruth ignored any and all feedback. Because the storytelling here is a mess. It’s like the ultimate experimental student film. Zero script and a bunch of experimentation.


So what is it about? Well, I needed to consult with a few other people to come to this summary, but here’s the best I could do. There’s this woman, a film editor or something, I think. She gets kidnapped by this guy who’s created these “drug-worms,” little maggots infested with some sort of mind-control chemical. Once swallowed, the victim basically becomes a mental slave. The guy who kidnaps her then tells her to clear out all her bank accounts and give him all the money. She wakes up a few weeks later, having no idea why she’s broke and can’t remember anything.

But that becomes the least of her worries when she notes a worm swimming through her body up around skin level. She tries to keep cutting it out but with no success. She then hears a noise, a loud “WOOOMP WOOOMP” that draws her from her home out to a pig farm. She tells the strange pig farmer that she can’t get this worm out. No problem, the pig farmer says, and performs surgery on her, inserting (I believe) some pig parts inside of her. This seems to eliminate the problem. Or so we believe.

The woman then wakes out of her mental stupor, realizing that she’s lost her job and that a couple of months have gone by. As she attempts to put her life back together, she meets a dude on the train who has a sketchy (potentially illegal) hotel job. Sketchy Hotel Guy takes a liking to the woman and keeps asking her out. But because the last dude she met led to worms and pig parts inside her body, she’s understandably reluctant. Eventually, however, his persistence pays off, and the two start dating. Except this is REALLY DEPRESSING DATING. Like, both of these people have extremely mundane boring lives and talk about the most boring things imaginable. So we must endure banal, directionless, sad dialogue between them for many many scenes.

Eventually, Sketchy Hotel Guy realizes that Pig Girl isn’t all mentally there. Clue number one is that she likes to take a bag of rocks to the local swimming pool, dump them on the swimming pool floor, recover them one at a time, reciting lines from an obscure book while doing so. Observing this, it occurs to Sketchy Hotel Guy that the two of them might be under some mind control.  So he and Pig Girl do some investigation, locate the pig farmer, go to his place, and realize that each of the pigs he owns is some sort of psychic counterpart to a human being out there in society. Which means they’ve both been psychically pig-abducted. I think. They then go out, tell all of the psychically abducted pig people that they’re being controlled by pigs, and those people come to the pig farm to look at their pig counterparts, coming to terms with the reality that they’re… sorta pigs too, now. Then they all go home and order pizzas with extra pepperoni (okay, I made that last part up).


Okay, I’m just going to state the obvious here. This idea is dumb. I’m sorry, but it’s just dumb! Psychically controlled pig people? There’s no screenwriting gobbledy-gook that needs to be mentioned or applied here. It’s just a DUMB IDEA. I don’t care how you dress it up. You put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.  Someone needed to tell Shane Carruth that this was a dumb idea and to not to make this movie! But, see, Shane Carruth isolated himself from Hollywood so that nobody could tell him no. He’s like the indie version of George Lucas.

I mean, nothing really matters if the idea is stupid, right? If people aren’t on board with the idea, they won’t give a crap about the story. Except for the rare case when you get a really awesome storyteller who can make a bad idea interesting. Shane Carruth, however, is not that storyteller. You’d have a better chance translating Mayan scripture than one of his stories. And some people think that’s by design. I don’t. I believe that the success of a storyteller is dependent on the audience understanding his work in the way he intended for it to be understood. If he’s trying to make you see “A” and you’re seeing “B,” that’s a failure. And I don’t think anyone but a scattered few are interpreting Shane’s work the way he intended. And this could’ve been avoided by simply – oh I don’t know – LISTENING to other people. Other people’s opinions are not the devil. You don’t even have to make the changes they suggest. Just LISTEN to them. If you did, you might be able to make more than one film a decade.

Personally, I think the movie would’ve been better if the guy who kidnapped her originally (who hypnotized her so she wouldn’t remember who he was) was the one she later started dating, instead of Sketchy Hotel Guy. I mean, now you have some actual dramatic irony. We know this guy is dangerous, that he’s stolen this woman’s money, and she’s falling in love with him. That’s a scenario I would’ve been intrigued by.

But there’s nothing as skilled as that here. It’s all just strange ideas mixed in with an awkward romantic relationship storyline. I did like a few things. I liked the title. I liked the cinematography. I liked the score. The first few minutes of the movie were captivating in a purely cinematic way. But it always comes back to the story for me. If you don’t know how to dramatize situations, how to add suspense or create compelling relationships or clear conflict. Or just make sense! You’re going to fall on your face. And Upstream Color, along with all the little piglets it birthed, falls squarely on its face.

[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth watching
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Dumb ideas make bad movies. I know this sounds obvious but I see a TON of scripts that are doomed before I even read the first line because the ideas are dumb. Simple test. Throw your idea in with a bunch of others, send them to some friends, don’t tell them which one is yours. Ask them to rank the ideas from best to worst. If your idea isn’t coming out near the top, don’t write it. Or just pitch your idea to people. Regardless of what they say (they’re all going to tell you they “like” it to be nice to you), look at their eyes. Are they excited, or are they confused and bored? A sign of a good idea is when they jump in and start adding ideas. Or they’re just excited. If someone looks genuinely excited about your idea, you know you have something good.

  • Will Vega

    This sounds so stupid I actually want to see it.

  • Hector Enzo Moran

    Carson you’re becoming predictable. I think we all knew this was going to get a what the hell rating.

    You got to choose movies that’ll keep us guessing.

  • ripleyy

    Honestly, Shane has talent. I never watched Primer all the way through but that was a good film. I know I’ll get shit for saying this – but I don’t care – but the same thing goes for Terrance Malick.

    Malick likes to make films beautiful but there’s no direction, no story. Shane likes to make films complex which, too, is okay but there’s no direction, no story. You see where I’m going with this.

    Shane is just the “Hollywood Bad Boy” right now and if he had his act together, this guy could make a couple hits a year and earn big. I don’t know if the rumour is true, but he should just stick to directing right now. Stop writing. Malick needs to stop writing as well. And pretentious.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had to compare Malick to Shane but I just did.

    • Kommerzschlampe

      I didn’t read your post all the way through but that was a good post. I know I’ll get shit for saying this – but I don’t care – but the same thing goes for Carson. And so.

  • Avishai

    For me, seeing a movie get a What the Hell on this site has become the highest form of recommendation.

  • Evan Stewart

    Not gonna read the review but not surprised by his rating at all. Considering he felt the same way about Looper which was a fairly straightforward movie, this isn’t a surprise. I still can’t wait to see this movie because I liked Primer a lot and this looks way better.

  • Carson Daves

    I wish Roger Ebert was still around.

  • Vitamin Bee-otch

    Haven’t seen this movie. But the “Donnie Darko” parallel is surprisingly revealing as to why I should skip it. I completely agree with your assessment of Richard Kelly and filmmakers like him. They make these movies that DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE and then film hipsters make fun of you because you “aren’t smart enough” to “figure it out.” Well here’s what’s really happening:

    Richard Kelly writes Donnie Darko. If you read the script or watch the movie from start to finish, it does not tell a complete story. If has some great acting, some memorable scenes, but as a whole, when the story ends, you immediately say “what the hell?” in the most confused and unsatisfied way as the credits start rolling like you were supposed to be impressed.

    Then you “talk about it” with your friends and log onto Donnie Darko forums and “discuss” what “actually happened” in the movie and then suddenly it’s GOOD.

    So basically a bad writer didn’t tell a complete story, then his so-desperate-to-like-it audience actually WROTE THE REST OF THE STORY FOR HIM. Well I’m sorry folks, if your audience has to “figure out” your story after it ends, putting it through six other drafts in their head, you didn’t do your job. There is a HUGE difference between an “open narrative” and an “incomplete” one.

    Inception: open narrative. Tells a complete story, but the ending suggests more. You can still “discuss what really happened” afterward, but the story is told completely.

    Donnie Darko: incomplete narraitve. Doesn’t tell a complete story, but the audience “makes it cool” when they fill in the blanks with their “theories.”

    I feel like the same thing happened with Lost. It had some really terrible and incomplete writing there toward the end, but the audience was so invested, so desperate for it to be good based on the promise of the first few seasons (myself included), that they actually started doing the writers’ jobs for them by writing the rest of the story in their heads and in their forums.

    And there’s nothing “cool” or “smart” about having to do someone else’s job for them.


    • Brainiac138

      I am not saying you are wrong, but I think there is something to be said about a film that asks its audience to discuss it and make its own decision concerning its value.

      Have you seen Sound of My Voice? I am not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say the ending will leave people with a need to talk about it.

      • Vitamin Bee-otch

        I haven’t seen that, but I’ll definitely check it out. And I agree, a movie that makes you talk about it afterward it very powerful and what we all hope for when we go to the theater. I just think it needs to be a discussion about what the movie was implying with its premise and how the story was told, and not all the things that apparently happened that weren’t even mentioned on screen.

        And I was a fan of Donnie Darko because I enjoyed talking about it. But once I started writing myself, I realized that the script was basically amateur, scattered, and incomplete, and until I had someone “explain” to me what the movie was “about,” I really didn’t think too much about Donnie Darko the FIRST time I saw it. So I’m not saying movies like that can’t be enjoyable and talked about, but they are definitely given way too much artistic credit sometimes, and there is a clear reason why they aren’t widely released or make money. I also remember listening to Richard Kelly’s commentary on the Donnie Darko DVD, and it became abundantly clear that not even the director knew what the hell was going on in his movie.

        I’ll try to list a few movies that I think ride that fine line between telling a good story yet leaving enough open to talk about, movies that I loved upon first viewing but felt compelled to talk about afterward:

        Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
        American Psycho (kind of?)

        Anyway. I’ll look into Sound of My Voice. Thanks!

    • martin_basrawy

      Agreed, especially your comparison of Inception with Darko. There are movies (and even TV shows like Lost) that leave it up to the viewers to fill in some blanks and draw their own inferences. But there’s gobbled goo. It sucks to hear that Upstream Color is the latter.

      • A Kind machine

        It’s not, don’t listen to him. I agree with Inception, but I still love Donnie Darko. This movie is really great, though. Far from bloated, super concise. I really want to find the script…

  • Paul Clarke

    I know what makes emotions… A story.

    Psychology 101.

    And I’m sorry but that review makes it sound even worse than in Carson’s.

  • jae kim

    from what I can gather, it’s something to be felt, not seen. I can see how some people love movies like this when it’s done well and by all the positive reaction, this carruth guy probably has a lot of talent.

    personally I wouldn’t want to see it because I see movies to be entertained, not to be experimented on by a film maker.

    I would relate this type of art house films to modern paintings. I once saw a giant red circle on canvas displayed at a museum. to me it was just a red circle, but others saw something deeper. the futility of life’s struggles or something, I don’t know.

    • martin_basrawy

      This is why I don’t follow modern art. If someone draws a red circle on a white canvas and a bunch of critics (for some reason or another) say it’s brilliant, then all of a sudden that painting is worth millions. It’s just so damn subjective but it’s also so open to manipulation. Movies like Primer and Upstream Color are one of those “well if you didn’t get it then you must like your entertainment to be spoon fed to you and you must not like stories that are about something other than just good versus evil”.

      I guess the most telling thing will be if Carruth comes out of this as being more in-demand or not. The market will have spoken, as it were.

      • tipofthenose

        Sorry but that is stupid. It is not the red circle on white canvas that is so amazing it usually is the context in which you have to see it. If today you would draw the same picture no one would care. But you have to see the time and the place where that picture was made. Those paintings were created in a time when no one had ever seen such things. THEY WERE NEW!!!!! and had never been done before. People were drawing forests and deer and naked ladies or stuff like that. And then someone came and draw a red circle on a plain canvas that was a FUCKING REVOLUTION. Go and invent something that has never never never been done before and I promise you people will pay you millions for it!!!! For you screenwriters that means you must now come up with a story that has never been told before and a new genre, then you will understand what this painting is about and you will get that paycheck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • martin_basrawy

          I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about in terms of paycheck. but so what if someone does something new? if it doesn’t make dramatic sense then what’s the point? should experimentation in itself be rewarded with laurels?
          would you say primer and now upstream color are positively acclaimed (let’s not worry about box office dollars) because an overwhelming majority of people “get” what the movies were going for, or because a good number of people hear other more important people (critics) love it and therefore believe that it must be a good film?

        • GeneralChaos

          “It is not the red circle on white canvas that is so amazing it usually is the context in which you have to see it. If today you would draw the same picture no one would care. But you have to see the time and the place where that picture was made. Those paintings were created in a time when no one had ever seen such things. THEY WERE NEW!!!!!

          It’s the flag of Japan!

  • jae kim


    “I’m just curious, what answers did you come away with to “what happens
    if humans are being controlled by something they don’t know”?”

    mind controlling pigs obviously!!

  • Mercutio

    never heard of this film before. from the review i now really want to see this! a woman who gets pig parts inside her; love it!
    i think carson puts too much weight on causality and traditional storytelling. robert mckee would call this an antistructured film. it doesn’t need to be bad because it is a mess. cool scenes and ideas can be just as interesting. it’s not dumb because it’s not linear.

    • Montana Gillis

      Soooo, you’re saying the woman in the movie gets porked?

  • Eudora Quilt

    Stories make emotions. But so do poetry and music. Not all art has to be narrative.

  • carlos ybarra

    I want to be the first to say that Shane Carruth is the perfect example of an artist in the worst sense of the word. You know the type, right? The more cryptic and pointless is his his work, the more enthusiastic are the critics. It’s not a surprise that ‘Primer’ was a flop at the box office. And now this… Sorry, I can’t fin a word to describe this piece of crap called ‘Upstream Color’. I’ll give you and advice, Shane. You need psychiatric help. Right now.

    • Brainiac138

      Primer wasn’t cryptic, though. It was a pretty straight-forward, if atypical, time travel story.

  • martin_basrawy

    I’ll be honest. I only understood about 80% of Primer. And that’s after watching it twice. This is coming from someone that understood the majority of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles the first time through, so I am by no means a “stupid” viewer. I was afraid that Carson’s review is what Upstream Color would turn to be. Damn. I think I’d still like to watch it though, just to see how much of a clusterfuck it is.

  • JWF

    I actually really liked Primer. Upstream Colour doesn’t come out here in the UK until the end of the month, but I’ll definitely be checking it out. Will maybe post my thoughts here once I see it.

  • John Boston

    I haven’t seen the film yet but usually I judge a movie based on a single criteria.
    Did the film evoke an emotion in me?
    Here’s something to consider Carson. If the movie made you this passionate about hating it, then maybe he did something right. I don’t mean hating it in the way something like paris hilton films make you hate them, but the kind of hatred a film like Tree of Life evokes.

    • Will Vega

      So if you hate the film, you’d feel like you got your money’s worth?

      • John Boston

        I’ll pay to see anything if it’s different, even if I absolutely hate it. I feel ripped off when I see shit repackaged with a different title.

        • Will Vega

          I might have to agree with that. I’d be angrier if I saw a bad ripoff as opposed to seeing something that is trying to be different.

  • Poe_Serling

    I always like when Carson goes out of his wheelhouse and kicks up some dust… makes for an interesting day of comments.

    Personally, I was hoping he would review Scary Movie 5 and give it a {x} worth watching – but I understand there’s no controversy in doing that.

  • Graham

    Of course the idea of pigs as allegorical substitutes for human beings is not entirely new – see ‘Animal Farm’ (no…not THAT one. I meant the George Orwell thingy). So I can’t agree with Carson that the idea is completely and totally ‘dumb’.

    Bottom line and complete over simplification: Carson is a ‘movie’ guy. This sounds like a ‘film’ – if it was a French language ‘piece’ then he wouldn’t have covered it and nobody would be batting an eyelid – heck there’s probably literally thousands of European ‘arthouse’ films he’d dislike just as much. So to be honest, I don’t know why Carson bothered reviewing it. Never the type of movie he was going to like (confirmed to me a wee while back when he had a pop at Lynne Ramsay’s ‘arthouse’ credentials) and MOST DEFINITELY not the type of script that he is focussed on encouraging / emulating here.

    There’s most definitely a place for this type of film in American cinema – just to prove to the French that they don’t have a monopoly on this type of thing and to satisfy a minority audience – but Scriptshadow ain’t that place.

    I’m more than happy for Carson to stick to his regular beat – that’s why I keep coming back – just don’t see the point in him straying overly far.

  • Vitamin Bee-otch

    Also, putting everything else aside…how in the holy hell of christ do you screw up a recommendation/mentorship from David effing Fincher?

  • bruckey

    because it’s carruth i will watch it

  • Kay Bryen

    I’m taking bets in this dark corner on how long it’ll be before Carson starts raving about Psy’s Gangnam Style sequel.

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey Kay-

      I might hold off on taking any bets. Carson posted Psy’s new video on his twitter account about 3 days ago. When it comes to the trendsetting, Psy, and great music, Carson is pretty much ahead of the curve.

      • Kay Bryen

        Yeah and now that Psy will be appearing in a Hollywood film, Carson’s two biggest passions have come together at last. Now if only the film also had a product placement deal for In-N-Out…

        • Poe_Serling

          So true.

  • DrMatt


  • Christian Zilko

    I haven’t seen Upstream Color or Primer, but can this really be worse than the useless drivel that Terrence Mallick puts out?

    • New_E

      re: useless drivel – I’m gonna have to fight you for that!

      Admittedly, I missed THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, but seen everything else before that. His films are gorgeous!


  • Erik Vidal

    I thought Upstream Color was incredibly beautiful and, much like Primer, will absolutely reward multiple viewings… I can see why it wasn’t Carson’s cup of tea (clearly!) but, really gentlemen, let’s be fair here: you can’t grade an “auteur” piece like this on the same grading curve that you’d use to look at something generated by the Hollywood system–as Sam Jackson once so eloquently put it: “It’s ain’t even the same f*ckin’ sport…”

    Upstream Color (like Primer before it) DOES have a fully thought out narrative arc–peopled with fully fleshed out characters and the whole bit–but, it does not come to you; it is the mountain at the end of the street–you go to it. One of the great pleasures of Carruth’s work is in the journeying to, and the climbing up, of that mountain (and as a “guide”, as a storyteller and a filmmaker, he has earned my trust, and I trust him not to waste my time with anything that hasn’t been fully thought through)… This isn’t a Michael Bay movie (or an Adam Sandler movie, or whatever the low bar is these days), wherein we’re looking at a classic 14 beat Save the Cat template, and the only thing that’s going to surprise us screenwriters is what new sort of permutation they’re going to come up with for the Mid Act 2 twist that is, somehow, surprising yet inevitable at the same time (and even that’s usually too much to ask for these days!)… This is something completely new, different, UNCOMPROMISING, and I for one think the guy should be applauded for having the nerve to stay true to his vision rather than watering it down into something that would make it less than what it is…

    Now, of course, this absolutely a judgement call on a case-to-case basis–I read A Topiary a few years back (all 244 pages of it), and, while I liked some of the ideas in there, the length was (obviously) off putting (a dealbreaker, in fact), I couldn’t tell the 10 kids apart, and the “twist” ending was, for anyone familiar with the usual sci fi tropes, not entirely unexpected… If I was the studio exec reading that script I would have had PLENTY of notes to give (starting with “Now it’s three kids, two boys and a girl, both boys like the girl, let’s play with that and see what happens”–cliche, I know, but that triangle would’ve provided drama where there was none), and my argument would’ve been, “Look man, the more expensive your movie gets, the more we have to stick within the confines of the formula (at least for your first major outing), and if you don’t want to play by our rules, fine, but if you want to do something this wildly ambitious and experimental, you’re gonna have to do it on our your dime…” And you know what? The guy did just that. Rather than compromise his vision he want off and made exactly the movie that he wanted to make (a different, cheaper one, granted), with friends, outside the Hollywood system, the movie is frame-for-frame exactly what he wanted it to be (at least far as I can tell from having read a number of interviews with the man), he released it himself, he’s getting a LOT of buzz from it now, people are seeing it… I mean, isn’t this what we ALL here dream about? Writing and directing (and, in Shane’s case, also starring in, shooting, editing, producing, distributing, and marketing) our own films? The guy did it, and I applaud the fact that he stuck to his guns early on in his career, and didn’t end up making Biodome 2 (or whatever else they may have put him in front him)… What if Kubrick had lost his nerve early on in his career? (Oh wait, he did–he wanted to sell out the ending of Paths of Glory, and Kirk Douglas talked him out of it…) Would we have gotten 2001 later on? Clockwork Orange? Full Metal Jacket?

    I say we need more films (and filmmakers) like this, not less; ACTUAL independent films (and not just these so-called “indies” which are really just $10M quirky romcoms for movie stars to get a little street cred and go to Sundance)… INTERESTING movies, DIFFERENT movies, COMPLEX movies made on shoestring budgets with friends that people actually see and talk about… Again this isn’t to say “Alright then, go shoot the doorknob for 90 min, put an ambient soundtrack on top and call it movie–we’ll all talk about it after!!” You really have to know how to push the envelope without falling into self-indulgence (see Terrence Malick for the latter), but here, with Upstream Color, I definitely think we have a pretty magnificent case for the former, and I for one can’t wait to see The Modern Ocean (Carruth’s next)… Meanwhile, I’ll be seeing Upstream a second time (in theaters) because, hey, I want the second hit to show me what I missed in the first…


    • grendl

      So what were the answers you got coming from this movie?

      About life, or power. I mean I’ve read a lot of reviews citing the bravery of the director to stay true to his artistic vision but what exactly did that vision have to say. I’ve read your post twice and still haven’t seen anything illuminating about the human condition.

      And don’t tell me to see the film for myself and decide. I’m asking you what you learned that you didn’t know before. Isn’t that fair?

      Maybe “Transformers” is really about the human condition too, and Michael Bay is in fact secretly an auteur slipping in nuanced messages about power dynamics or gender roles in our modern society.

      Maybe “The Shining” is about the faked moon landing directed by Stanley Kubrick.
      Or maybe it’s a bunch of pseudointellectual bullshit by people mistaking vagueness for brilliance.
      Artistic license doesn’t mean everything someone creates constitutes art.

      • martin_basrawy

        when people say “if a piece of art made you feel an emotion, any emotion, then it must have been good”, it’s like saying “no publicity is bad publicity”, which is just not true.

        • treestandwater

          The difficult thing for people on this site not all but most, is they are Hollywood watching folks, which is completely awesome nothing wrong with it. But I believe art films require a developed eye, they require more patience, they require settlement with unresolved storylines, they require a new kind of vocabulary. FAST FOOD is salty, sugary and cheap, they hit us where it hurts but it feels so good, just like Identity Thief. Man I hate that movie but it felt good to get a shot of salt and sugar at the same time. I think there’s something to gain from both sides of the spectrum. Go watch Lincoln then go watch Spring Breakers. Another main point is, I don’t think Shane is getting applauded for Primer anymore, there’s something interesting and cinematic that people respond to in Upstream, again he did something right, art film or not, he did something right, which is so HARD to do in this business.

          • martin_basrawy

            but is doing “something right” in itself that important? similar to experimentation, non-linear, non-three act structure films. should they be lauded simply because an artist attempted them?
            I have no problem with difficult or non-traditional (however one defines that) films. I’m just saying that being experimental and weird and leaving things open-ended, in itself, should not be a sign of greatness. because by that logic (and this is a slippery slope argument, I realize) all the college film students that loved that plastic bag in the wind shot from American beauty and went out and made their own existential statements were actually geniuses. why not? why are those films considered shit and not Carruth’s?
            Basically my question is: when is it okay to “declare” an experimental piece of work as a failure in the artist rather than the audience for not appreciating it or being hungry only for “fast food” entertainment?

      • Chris Mulligan

        Dead on, Grendl. “Bravery” looks great on a merit badge, but we need something of substance from the thumbs-up reviewing crowd on this one, and that doesn’t seem to exist at the moment.

      • Erik Vidal

        Re: my comment above, my apologies for being somewhat intentionally vague but I really did (and still do) feel that Upstream is a movie that viewers should take in cold first; have a totally visceral / emotional / gut reaction to it (or not–again, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea), discuss it with their friends etc, THEN get online and start reading up on all the plot summaries and breakdowns, and THEN view it again with all this in mind and actually begin to piece together the puzzle… That having been said, if you want just the briefest orientation, here, just to get you pointed in the right direction before going in–


        Time is a river, and the water (the “time”) flows from upstream to downstream. You are forever in the POP (the “point of present”), things that (seem to have) happened to you in your past are, right now (re: your POP), UPSTREAM, and things that you imagine will happen to you, in your future, are DOWNSTREAM. One of the basic premises of Upstream Color is that people can and do have things happen to them (severe traumas, for example) which, months or even years later, will continue to tint, or color, their worldview without them even realizing it. As Carruth himself said in a recent interview, “It’s really all about being effective at a distance.” (Paraphrasing a bit there, am sure you can Google for the actual quote.)

        Example: not to get into all of it here (and dump my entire hamper of dirty laundry out all over the Scriptshadow forum!), but I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional household, “raised” (if you can call it that) by a woman who was rarely present, have all kinds of abuse in my past, the whole bit (small wonder I’m a writer now, right?). I left home to go to college early (at 16) to get away from all that, and once I was out the door it was like, “Phew, thank God–I made it. I survived. And now I can finally get on with my life, completely free and unencumbered…” It wasn’t until I started doing quite a bit of Life Repair (years later, starting in my mid 20s) that I realized that, yes, indeed: those events I thought I’d left behind so long ago not only were still very much with me (despite the fact that I thought I’d dropped all that baggage long since), but that, in fact, these events, these past traumas, were tinting, were COLORING the very way that I saw the world, and all the while I had absolutely no idea any these past influences were even remotely still in play (see PT Anderson’s Magnolia: “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us”.) It’s like someone else putting a pair of rose-colored glasses on you when you’re still just a child: at first the world looks strange, and then you get used to it, and then after a while it looks totally normal, and then eventually you forget that you even had the glasses put on you the first place. And now you’re looking at this colored version of the world, and wondering why everyone else isn’t seeing the exact same thing that you’re seeing…

        So Upstream Color is very much about this phenomenon: episodes in our past which can haunt us to this day–which can, in fact, dictate our actions, our entire mode of relating to the world, all without our even realizing it. In the movie a woman becomes the victim of a mind control drug, and while under the influence her savings are wiped out, she loses her job, everything. When she finally comes to she has to start her life completely over again (this is very much what it’s like for any abuse or trauma survivor); she meets a man, they have an instant connection, it soon becomes clear that he went through the exact same thing (he was drugged, embezzled money from his work while under the influence, had to start his life over again, etc etc). So these two are both trauma survivors, they’re both trying to piece their lives back together (dealing with “the reboot”), they’re trying to have some kind of relationship with each other, but it’s really damn hard when they have these events from their past (these events “upstream”, on the timeline) which continue to color their existence in the present, and into the future (“downstream”).

        On top of this, we have another fellow (“The Sampler”) who also went through a bit of trauma himself (he lost his wife), and his answer was to retreat from the world entirely. Now he chooses to live his life “safely”, at one remove, by “sampling” emotions from other people, and then re-experiencing them at will–color for color, shade for shade, as one would at a wine tasting. He does this by setting out his speakers at night, blasting out the bass, the people who’ve been dosed by the mind control drug show up (the thumping bass sounds are the bait, the net–the worms in the body are attracted to the low frequencies), he pulls the worms out of the victims and places them into the body of a nearby pig, and from then on, the drugged person and the pig are psychically connected: touch the pig, and you can feel what that person is feeling, in the actual moment, wherever they may be. The Sampler then lets the person go, but keeps the pig. Repeat a few dozen times, and before you know it, this guy has a whole piano keyboard of emotions to choose from, to sample, at any given time. He can feel hope, love, fear, hate–all by simply touching these various pigs and, as he does so, being instantly “transported” into the emotional mindset of whichever person that pig is connected to (thereby allowing him to experience all the highs and lows of life without any of the messiness of human interaction). Of course, as all the pigs are running about playing in the same farmyard, rubbing up against each other, connecting with each other etc, things get a bit messy: on the people end, memories start to overlap, get confused, etc (this is why our two leads start arguing about which childhood memories happened to who, because the pigs are interacting, and the Hive Mind is taking over…). People start to grow closer together, or further apart, and they don’t know why. And all the while, it’s simply because there’s an unseen, unknowable presence exerting its influence in their lives. They think they’re in control, they have free will, but they’re not, and they don’t. There are other “higher” powers (upstream) in play (just as the blue dye flows downstream and tints the white flower blue, at the end of the movie… The white flower is innocence; the blue dye is trauma / life experience; and the resulting blue flower is the entity that survives after having been coated by that experience)…

        Of course there’s a LOT more to get into here and I’d love to keep discussing it, but really, the above should be more than enough to serve as a basic compass to guide you through your initial viewing. (And for those who’ve already seen it and want to weigh in on any of the above, please do comment below! Certainly this is a movie worth talking about.)

        And as for the The Shining (re: comment above): it was about the genocide of the Native American people. Check it out:

        And in fact, as long as we’re talking about the deconstruction of indie films, here, do definitely check out Rob Ager’s entire analysis of The Shining, well worth the read:


        • grendl

          The fact that our personalities and habits are established in our formative years, mostly in the first ten years of life is not a “phenomenon” as you put it.

          And Shane Carruth didn’t stumble upon this miraculous discovery, that our pasts inform our present whether or not we’re aware of it on a daily basis. There’s a history of psychology which is based on it.

          Treating it as a revelation is in my opinion like Columbus discovering America. The native population must have wondered what the hell all the hub bub was about.
          Look, I get it. I’m all for discussions involving the human condition, and why we are how we are, but a story still has to have some grounding in reality. If not the premise of the movie, then the behavior of the characters at least, and it doesn’t sound like people in this film act like real people would if faced with similar circumstances.

          I’m judging based on the synopsis provided, as I haven’t seen it, so if I’m wrong I’ll defer to your experience. Why pigs though?

          Can you address the choice of metaphor? Why choose an animal which is a slave to the machine itself as the puppetmaster of those who harvest it for food and keep it chained in pens. I mean a parasitic worm is almost understandable in a “Puppetmasters” way, but I don’t get the metaphor.

          I’m glad you liked the film, and that it brought up questions, but personally I have enough questions in my life without Shane Carruth’s weird hypotheticals. I either need answers, or to be lied to that everything will one day be okay. Polanksi already told me we can’t win. It’s Chinatown.

          • AKindMachine

            Holy. Crap. have you ever enjoyed something viscerally grendi? Also, there are no questions left at the end of this, really. I don’t get it, this was a nice, clear story told in an interesting fashion with very little dialog (HUGE PLUS for me). SEE IT FIRST DON’T BE THAT GUY!

        • Citizen M

          Thank you for that lucid explanation.

  • DrMatt

    The thing I don’t like about this review is that it’s turning off people who would potential see this because they think Carson’s word is the truest and most factual of the land, when this movie seemed tailor-made for him to hate. Why did he even bother reviewing it?

    Stick to what you know, because that’s why we come here:

    • martin_basrawy

      I agree there might be a danger of this. People around the world often get influenced by the critics they agree with most of the time and thereby not go see movies that they might otherwise enjoy. This is why I’m still going to seek out Upstream Color and judge for myself, though I don’t have high hopes for it, not only because of Carson’s review but because this type of experimental film often strikes out with me. But hey I’m still going to be open minded and let it wow me.

  • WrathofChakaKhan

    “I ended up passing on Topiary” “I support him” And you wonder why Shane was so fed up with all those meetings…

    • Tracey_Emins_Left_Tit

      Hi there

      I’ve just read my previous email and I would like to clarify that I do support Shane and consider him a phenomenal talent but my company had a busy slate at the time we were talking and we didn’t have the time and resources needed to treat this project with the care and attention we would all want.

      We are not the kind of company that keeps numerous projects on its books just for the sake of quantity so it was best for all of us that we remain friends and watch as Shane gets / got the project made.

      In the long gamut of production companies we pride ourselves that we are material and writer friendly and base the foundations of ALL our projects on these virtues.

      • sheebshag

        What company do you work for? Left Tit?
        Tracey Emins from Left Tit?

      • Malibo Jackk


  • crazdwriter

    Carson, this is off topic, but an interview with Matthew Cruz about the sell of Guest would be very eye opening. Perhaps you can do one soon

  • Jonathan Soens

    I’m not sure it’s a preposterous premise, really. I know Carson said it was a dumb idea, too, but I’m not sure that’s it. I think the basic idea would’ve been fine if it was taken in a different direction, hopefully a less ambitious direction.

    Certain kinds of stories rely on a certain kind of storytelling. The bigger and more ambitious you get with it, the better your answers have to be (because you’re having to give more and more answers). Especially when you’re talking about sci-fi that is supposed to have a really ambitious “meaning” behind it. The first Matrix was kind of amazing. Once they fleshed it out into multiple movies, it stopped being amazing and started to feel stupid. In a small serving size, their ideas worked. Once they tried to make it too big, it collapsed under its own weight.

    Carson suggested the idea of pitching the logline to people and gauging whether they’re excited by it. But with ideas like this, they’re built for people to be pretty excited about them at first, but then that excitement starts to fall away after it gets bigger and bigger. I think, with some sci-fi ideas, instead of relying on people’s initial reaction to the idea, you almost need a “20 questions” kind of deal where you pitch the idea to someone and then they ask 20 follow-up questions about it that you have to be able to answer (without your answers being overly complicated gobbledygook or boring). If it’s a good idea that has some legs, you shouldn’t have trouble with those 20 questions. If it’s a flimsy premise, the wheels will probably fall off after 5 or 10 questions.

  • rosemary

    I havent seen but lol

  • BananaDesk

    Great comparison to Richard Kelly. I never thought of that. I saw this movie at Sundance and, as a HUGE fan of Primer, I was severely let down. I am convinced (as I am of Kelly) that, if given a simple scene of two people talking, Carruth wouldn’t know what to do AT ALL — he just can’t tell a simple, straight-forward story. People pass it off as if he’s a genius who doesn’t operate on most people’s levels but I think it’s the exact opposite. And might I add he is a TERRIBLE actor.

  • Montana Gillis

    Carruth can be as “Artsy” and “Obtuse” as he wants to be, but it’s called Show “BUSINESS”. If your type of product can’t make enough money to warrant the time and expense (in the opinion of the “greenlighters”) you don’t get a shot at the big time.

  • Midnight Luck

    Agree with Montana,
    I think that since it is called ENTERTAINMENT, it should, well, Entertain First.

    That is how I judge something first and foremost, did it entertain me, and that can mean in any way.

    Was I entertained. Short of that, I think it can just be a giant waste of time and money, for me. My sheckles are valuable, and precious.

    I am a huge fan of French film, I am a huge fan of Indies, I am somewhat a fan of Hollywood films (much more picky about my choices, bigger fan of small movies, less fan of Blockbusters, they always seem to disappoint, especially the ones that seem to bring in the most numbers, Ironic isn’t it).

    So I see all kinds of everything, and well, It has to Entertain me for me to feel like it was a SUCCESS in my eyes. (Donnie Darko did, Kelley’s other one (s) really didn’t) (all of Charlie Kaufman’s entertained, except Synechdoche didn’t).



      Synechdoche did disappear up its own ass towards the end there, but I still liked it.

  • New_E

    I must be the only person around who has no idea who Shane Carruth is or what his films are about. That write up doesn’t make the film appealing at all, but any movie that tackles mind control has to be interesting, right? And the poster and the images from the trailer are gorgeous…


  • Mercutio

    within the context of film, “different” tends to be good. i’m a curious person, i like new perspectives on things. when something is different i applaud the effort.

  • max


    Physically abducted pig-people! That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

    Btw,who the fuck is Shane Carruth?

  • RyanMFB

    I saw this at IFC with a Q and A after. If anything the QA made me realize this guy has no idea what he’s doing, he’s just throwing shit up on the screen to see what happens. Experimentation is good and everything, but you have to remember that experiments often fail.

    Overall if anything Carson is being too kind in his review. I HATED this movie.

    • grendl

      Just like blockhead tentpole spectacles like “Transformer” movies, indie quirk can be as brainless and empty.

      And people who embrace indie film as the keeper of the flame, the beacon of truth in a corporate world need to remember, you can be just as empty headed as Michael Bay in an independent low budget film.

      Not having hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal doesn’t make you some sort of street philosopher. Artistic posturing is rampant now, thanks to the digital age where any layman can cheaply make a film, incorporate bad metaphors and incoherent narrative and claim to be a storyteller.

      It used to be the studios could claim storytelling authority based on the fact that they had the resources to fund them. Now indie filmmakers are claiming the same authority based on the fact they don’t. You see them on Kickstarter all the time, more often than not woefully inept in creating coherent entertaining films.

      • LV-426

        That is something that bothers me about movies these days. It seems that there are two modes, either big dumb and loud (Hollywood), or no-budget artsy fartsy WTF-did-I-just-watch? (indies).

        Okay maybe that is painting things with a broad brush, but sometimes that is how it feels to me. What if I want to make and indie that has no budget yet is dumb and loud but entertaining?

  • sweetvita

    Hey All ;)

    This is off topic but I was sent an email from the Writers Store offering a class on the new “it” genre. Here’s a lil snippet from the article (tinyurl link to full article posted below).

    “If the 2012 Academy Award nominations for films like Lincoln and Argo are any indication of what audiences are clamoring for in their entertainment – then every indication points to stories rooted in history as being the new “it” genre! But how do you weave a story, interesting characters, and enough of a dramatic narrative to make history come to life? When do you write a historical event as a true story and when do you take the leeway to allow your historical character to take a fictional journey rooted in real events? How do you document historical fact? And, what in the world is a narrative snapshot movie?”

    The article reminded me of a discussion on this site a couple of threads back, so I thought it might be of interest.

  • Avishai

    I love Carson’s reviews, don’t get me wrong. But with the exception of Die Hard 5, I have enjoyed or loved all of the movies he absolutely hated (that I have seen).

  • Scott Strybos

    If you like Jeff Goldmsith’s podcast, Q&A, his latest post has Rian Johnston, who has made films like Brick and Looper, interview Shane about this film.

  • denisniel

    It felt to me that this film was combining two conflicting ideas: the one regarding the robbery (and the mind-control worm), and the one relating people to pigs. And although I was completely on board with the movie for the first half (due to the intrigue of what’s happening), it kind of lost me by:
    1) dedicating too much time and attention on the lingering relationship between two very uninteresting characters
    2) Never going back to the mind-control worm and the robbery plot (which was way more interesting than the humans=pigs idea – although I gotta admit, I didn’t fully hate that one as well… just thought it didn’t… evolve. It’s just there as it is: an idea…)

    • LV-426

      I haven’t seen the movie yet, but reading Carson’s review I had a similar thought. The part about mind-control worms being used to get people to commit illegal acts is a pretty cool idea and has interestingly high concept dramatic possibilities.

      Also, upon viewing the trailer a few months ago I remember getting the notion that Upstream Color is possibly dealing in some far out concepts that are very similar to the work of Philip K. Dick. VALIS and A Scanner Darkly (mind control, lost identity, blue flowers?). After reading the review and some comments about Upstream Color’s basic plot and themes, it seems to be the case.

  • LV-426

    I really need to see Hobbit and Furious 10 now that you’ve put the image of a midget Vin Diesel racing against Orcs in tricked out wooden horse-drawn wagons.

  • carsonreeves1

    he put that “not to adhere to the page-per-minute rule” in there afterwards, when everyone kept telling him the script was too long.

  • ximan

    You lost me at “they get linked with the pigs.” And I looooved PRIMER. Carson is dead on in his critiques. Whenever I hear of films like, I want to personally purchase a copy of Robert McKee’s “Story” and read it to the “auteur” page by page. Until they get the point that you can be as weird, “artistic”, open-ended, esoteric as you want AS LONG AS YOU HAVE S-T-O-R-Y!!!

  • carsonreeves1

    I understand good subtext. :)

  • carsonreeves1

    It really doesn’t. It’s one of those movies people get bullied into liking because they feel they’re supposed to.

  • Facebook User

    well at first maker might feel like pig but lets hope he posses some lets say basic skills that differs us from pigs and lets start with scramble eggs. well if dude can make dat then its pitty cos pigs cant make good scrble for sure unless d worm does the change…….LOL

  • Hubris

    Yeah, I’m sure Carruth told Fincher to go fuck himself. Good story, man.

  • A Kind machine

    I loved this movie. Not hard to follow, only needed one viewing. Emotionally strong, unconventional. Absolutely freaking loved it. The lack of dialog is a huge strength in my book. Shots are beautiful, especially some of those super close ups. A+.

  • Some Guy

    Hmm…Shane’s Upstream Color is highly regarded by both critics and regular audiences. Don’t be mad that not everyone wants to conform their scripts to the generic Hollywood storytelling guideline. Art films are far more interesting than any of these banal genre flicks screenwriting “experts” fawn over for following the traditional rules. Carruth has a couple of successful films now. It’s more telling that the person ripping it to shreds hasn’t made his own hits and prefers to tear down other people’s…while hiding behind a pseudonym.