Soon after she is drugged and sent on her way, Kris (Amy Seimetz) meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, also writer, director, editor, cinematographer, and composer), who is revealed to also be a host. Who else in the small, quiet town has met Thief? Would we like the answer?
Upstream Color, Carruth’s first feature since 2004’s Primer, offers no easy answers. It is a puzzle, although certainly nowhere near as complex as his debut. Carruth has no need for exposition and so keeps dialogue to a minimum, rarely letting the characters fill any voids the viewer may find. There are many bizarre sounds (courtesy of Sampler’s recording habits) and scenes of complete abstraction. Carruth has clearly been watching a lot of Terrence Malick films lately and Upstream Color has much of the quiet beauty found in all of that master’s works.
As the film progresses, we have to accept that we’re being given very little. We won’t be told the complete meaning of Kris and Jeff’s bond or what exactly is causing their apparent collapse or what Walden has to do with any of it, if anything. Upstream Color will infuriate a lot of viewers who either want answers or a clear timeline to follow so they can at least feel they’re being steered in the “right” direction, whatever that may be.
It’s challenging, but in the end, it’s a rewarding experience, if not solely because we haven’t seen anything quite like it before. Will we again? Not until the cycle starts anew, when Carruth starts work on another screenplay.