Upstream Color: how love and hope can overcome a cycle of evil and bring about healing

Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (2012)

Since making “Primer”, Shane Carruth’s career as film director and producer has definitely leapt ahead. There is still a rough-edged quality to his work but it also has a new-found poetry. A definite Shane Carruth universe based on real life, yet combining certain elements of wacky sci-fi and reality in a highly eccentric style, now exists. Compared to “Primer” which was based around the familiar SF trope of time-travel and the complications it caused for the two guys who used it, “Upstream Color” has a more straightforward narrative revolving around another familiar trope of apparent mind control and the message that that trope might embody.

Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film production executive, is drugged and abducted by a thief (Thiagos Martin). In her drugged state, Kris is tricked into handing over most of her life savings to the thief. Awaking from her drugged state, Kris discovers a worm wriggling in her body. Responding to a series of low-toned drones, Kris travels to a pig farm where the farmer, who has used sampled infrasonic sound to attract specimens of a nematode worm to his farm, performs a transfusion operation to remove Kris’s worm and inject it into a sow.

Apparently healed, Kris tries to reorganise her life but finds herself unemployed and her bank accounts empty. By chance, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her. Through trial and error, the two discover that they have had similar experiences and start to feel one another’s emotions and pain. As they eventually piece together various coincidences in their lives to ascertain the nature of their mysterious link, a parallel story runs in which the pig farmer makes field recordings of sounds in and around his farm, travels astrally to observe people, and drowns a litter of piglets mothered by the sow who receives Kris’s worm. While the piglets are dying, Jeff attacks his co-workers and Kris suffers a panic attack.

Jeff and Kris come to realise that they are being controlled by the pig farmer and confront him. They contact several other people who have also been infected by nematode worms from the farm and surrounding forests, and bring them to the farm. In time, the pigs are made healthy and the nematode worm infestation disappears.

The film might be considered a metaphorical investigation of cycles of physical / sexual abuse of children and how those cycles can be broken by the victims acknowledging that their problem exists, owning the problem and finding for themselves the solution to the problem. The victims also reach out to others and educate them, and together they all work to eradicate the original cause and heal their environment and society. The pig farmer might be a metaphor for Evil or Satan and the thief might be Satan’s tool for spreading temptation throughout society. At the same time, out of suffering and its banal repetition, represented by the nematode worm’s life-cycle through innocent flowers, humans and pigs, love and hope can arise, and from those positive emotions can spring motivation to eliminate evil, heal wounded souls and spread good health and bounty.

The cinematography is very beautiful and often poetic: Carruth may not be a very experienced director but he has a distinctive, matter-of-fact style that finds unexpected beauty and art in even the most gruesome shots. Scenes in which nematode eggs are released into a creek and spread through it to infect an entire ecosystem are lyrical yet sinister. The use of close-ups and hand-held cameras gives a documentary feel to the action. The soundtrack is an essential character in the film though actual music is quite conventional: the pig farmer uses found sound to entrap and draw his victims to his farm to extract the fully grown worms and inject his pigs so the parasites can complete their life-cycles.

The romance between Kris and Jeff is very deep and complex, and the sex scene between them, filmed in a short, choppy series of close-up shots, reveals more intimacy than a hundred Hollywood romance films put together.

The film’s structuring can be confusing to viewers and the narrative has plenty of logic holes – shouldn’t the nematode life-cycle go from flower to pig (a herbivore) to human (a carnivore)? – plus there are loose ends a-plenty; but all the rough patches do not detract from a film that speaks up for the power of love and hope to overcome evil and heal society.

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