Some observers have said the plot of Upstream Color is “impossible to describe.” I beg to differ. I will, in fact, proceed to describe the plot below. What is difficult to describe from writer/director(/co-editor/producer/composer/actor) Shane Carruth’s followup to Primer is the presentation of the narrative, which is fractured, hypnotic, pretentious, frustrating, surprising and ultimately unsatisfying.
The movie contains almost no dialogue, which is good, considering how often the dialogue is read in a flat, unconvincing monotone that only David Mamet could love. The visuals are sometimes fascinating — as with the macro photography — and the sound design is weirdly wonderful, as with a sequence where the villain records sound samples in nature and musicalizes them. The story also has many interesting elements, which I will now describe, but these elements, in my experience, were not brought to a satisfying conclusion. I will not say spoilers follow, because if anything reading a description of the action may aid in enjoyment of the film.
Note: I have seen the movie only once. I’m sure that the movie rewards multiple viewings, I’m just not sure a movie should be created that doesn’t also reward a single viewing.
The Plot, as it appears to me
At the beginning of Upstream Color, we see a man experimenting with extracting a blue substance from an orchid — more precisely from maggots that have grown in the soil below it. The substance is ingested by a pair of children, who find they can control each others movements from afar. A sort of mirror-neurons gone wild. I believe, based on the labels on the orchids in this sequence, that this actually takes place much later in the general timeline. Or perhaps we are seeing intercut both the hero (Shane Carruth) and the villain (Andrew Sensenig) working on the same substance.
In any case, in the next series of sequences, we meet Kris, a young lady who will constantly be changing hairstyles for the rest of the film for no apparent reason. Kris takes a drug at a club and before she knows it, she is in a highly-suggestible state, which a mysterious villain takes advantage of to have her write the entire text of the book Walden and to steal her gold coin collection and ruin her credit score. After the man leaves, Kris awakens from her stupor and tries (unsuccessfully) to remove the parasitic worms that have grown large enough to be seen undulating under her skin.
But her trauma is not over. The Sampler, our main villain, manages to summon her in the middle of the night by placing large speakers against the earth and playing some kind of pied-piper-by-way-of-dubsteb tune to which she is irresistibly attracted. Once in his clutches, The Sampler uses a makeshift medical RV to transfer the worm from Kris’ body to that of a pig.
The Sampler has a whole herd of these pigs, and by placing his hand near to them, he can observe what the victims are up to in their daily life. He does have some moral scruples, it seems, because he never once uses his remote viewing powers to watch them have sex.
Kris, meanwhile, wakes up with scars in her car on the side of the highway. She tries to put her life back together, using what little she can scrape together from a job at a print shop to constantly change hairstyles. Commuting to work on the subway, she meets Jeff (Carruth), who doggedly pursues a relationship with her, despite every warning sign that she’s an unstable mess post-parasite.
The movie descends into an insipid love story at this point, and we eventually learn that Jeff has also had a similar experience in waking up one day to find he had embezzled from his high-powered brokerage. Perhaps they are drawn to each other simply because the pigs they are psychically connected to are, to use a technical term, rutting. In any case, they wind up unable to tell each others’ childhoods apart, a sort of dissolution of identity.
The pregnancy of the pig causes Kris to feel pregnant, but doctors’ tests confirm that she isn’t. When The Sampler gathers all the piglets into a bag (except perhaps one escapes, it wasn’t clear) and throws them off a railroad bridge into a river, Kris goes into full panic mode.
Perhaps because of the sound sampling messages they’ve been receiving psychically, Kris and Jeff manage to locate the spot in the river where the bag of pigs has decayed and blue orchids have grown. They start a business with the orchids, and Jeff eventually discovers the maggots in the soil have magical properties.
Kris begins diving in a pool for rocks and reciting lines of Walden which somehow leads Jeff to some sort of clue about what happened to them. Once she and Kris track down The Sampler’s CD in a music store, they can see him in his psychic intrusions. Kris shoots him with a gun, then they send the medical records the The Sampler was keeping on each of his victims to the victims. The other victims arrive at The Sampler’s farm and seem to take it over. Will they all become Samplers themselves, at the mercy of this blue “upstream color” — as with the lifecycle of the parasitic wasp Ampulex compressa?
Is this a metaphor for the banking crisis, with evil parasitic pigs sucking the money out of Main Street Americans? Is this some New Age claptrap about all of us being connected on some level, dressed up in high-concept sci-fi?
Well, the film gives plenty to puzzle about beyond what I’ve written. But that’s the impossible-to-describe plot as I see it. I applaud Carruth for giving up on Hollywood and following his own vision, even if it seems to me a bit self-indulgently difficult. Carruth has said in interviews that all you need to see is the trailer and clips from the film to know whether you are the type who will appreciate its mystique. Although I am not one of them, I have no doubt they are out there, being psychically summoned by a whump whump bass note blasted into the earth.