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.