Upstream Color Review – Shane Carruth

Upstream Color review – Shane Carruth. To begin my Upstream Color Review – I figured I would list out a few of the many words that shotgunned across my mind as the credits began to roll: Gorgeous, Cerebral, Visceral, Emotive, Ingenious, Compelling, Exciting, Complicated, Haunting, Scary, Possessed, Eviscerating, Horrifying… Brilliant.

“I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”

Upstream Color is a hauntingly brilliant movie. From beginning to end. It is confusing, but its Shane Carruth we are talking about here, what else did you expect? But before we get deeper into the review let’s setup a couple of ground rules.

Firstly, this Upstream Color Review will be 100% spoiler free. Get that? Spoiler free. Which I don’t normally do. Ok, maybe not 100% (is that even possible?) but it won’t ruin your enjoyment of said movie anyway. Please note, that I will soon circle back around and write a fullon Upstream Color Explanation posting that will spoiler filled from beginning to end (which is how I normally work). But for now, on this posting specifically, anyone can read this in order to get a feeling for what this new amazing movie is all about.

Upstream Color Review - Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth

“The water before you is somehow special. When you drink it you feel revived and full of energy. It is better than anything you’ve ever tasted. Take a drink now.”

If you don’t know Shane Carruth, it is understandable. Up until a month or two ago he only had one movie to his oeuvre. One. And a movie that only cost him about $7,000 to make. But when that movie happens to blow the doors off of the Sundance Film Festival and win the Grand Jury Prize… then people start to stand up and take notice. Primer is a time traveling piece of brilliance that questions the strengths of friendships in the face of extraordinary power. If you’d like to learn more about Primer you can read about it here. I won’t detail more about that particular movie here, except to say it was groundbreaking and wickedly smart.

But then the wunderkind that is Carruth went AWOL. Completely offline and disappeared. Until 2013 when he brought his latest work, Upstream Color to Sundance Film Festival.

Legal Disclosures and Errata

“There are two approaching armies: hunger and fatigue, but a great wall keeps them at bay. The wall extends to the sky and will stay up until I say otherwise.”

Full disclosure, I may be the biggest Carruth fanboy of all time. Squared. I know there are several of us out there that just go into apoplectic shock at the mention of his name – so maybe I’m just on par – but, regardless please take that into account when reading this review. Also know, that when I regularly recommended Primer to others, 50% of the time people would come back to me with “Completely incomprehensible, WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING.” Which I quite enjoyed. So, it could well be that I am just messing with you by convincing you to watch this movie (which, to be clear, will be my goal by the end of this review.)

General overview –

“Each drink is better than the last, leaving you with the desire to have one more. Take a drink now.”

To best give you a feel for Upstream Color with the fewest number of words – think X-Files. And yet, that doesn’t do it. The movie is shot in a GORGEOUS macro perspective that I best liken to The Tree of Life. Lingering shots of an arm, or a face, a flower. But even better yet is the sound design. I have never in my life heard a movie made with more exquisite sound design than Upstream Color. I challenge you to name one. So we have a gorgeously produced, audio heaven X-file episode so far. Right? And yet, its a love story set in a horrifying backstory of chaos and manipulation at a level that is just beyond the pale. Think Ruby Sparksian sort of level and then factor that because this just isn’t funny… like at all. Then on top of all that, spread a thick layer of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind for good measure.

And then there is the Carruth factor. As a viewer, we know that Carruth is the smartest director in Hollywood… and he just will not pander. Carruth makes Mr. Nolan look he’s producing Mister Rogers, not The Prestige, Inception and Memento… Shane is that smart. No offense to Nolan… because I’m a huge fan. Obviously if you’ve read like ANY of my other posts. But what that means to us, is that we know for a fact that absolutely every shot is important. Every frame has detailed data that needs to be consumed, digested and understood. This is a truth. And while it was beautiful – that is secondary to the fact that each moment is real, its reliable, and we can use it as a datapoint going forward in understanding the whole.

Can you come to this movie and just watch it unfold? Yes. Even more so than Primer. I recently watched Primer with a friend who hadn’t seen it – and I said to him before it started “Its deep, but if you don’t want to dig, that’s ok… it’ll logically follow regardless.” Um… no. At the end of the movie, I apologized to him because I forgot just how incoherent that movie is for the first time viewer. This movie is not like that at all. You can watch it and just soak in its brilliance at surface level and just enjoy it by taking it at face value. And yet there will be areas of this movie at the end, for the discerning audience, that will just completely gnaw at you. Questions begging for an answer.

At the highest of levels the movie is about a girl named Kris who is violently assaulted. Afterwards she is in desperate need of pulling her life back together again, but there are lingering effects from the attack. The movie is also about a boy named Jeff. Jeff has also been violently assaulted. This couple are drawn to one another and fall in love… And in so doing begin trying to unravel their past.

I understand how vague that sounds. And yet, I worry that I may have given too much away. I was very intentional about how I wrote that paragraph. I chose my verbs particularly carefully. But that’s it. That paragraph is your movie. And yet, that doesn’t do it justice by a long shot. Like not even close.

Scariest Movie Ever

“The next drink must be earned and I’m going to tell you how. Focus closely on my instructions. I will ask you to repeat them from memory.”

I have spent time here at looking for the scariest books of all time. I love scary books. (Heck, I love all kinds of books.) I also enjoy freaky scary movies. Not stupid Freddy Krueger movies. But like, yeah, scary movies. Movies like Bad Influence and Pacific Heights or House of Sand and Fog maybe. Movies that are realistic, are dark, and could really, actually happen. And that is what Upstream Color is. Scary as hell. And I loved every minute of it. There was one scene with our main character Kris, a large butcher knife, and large quantities of blood on the linoleum floor that had me laughing I was so out of my mind. It was brilliant. So yeah, this movie isn’t for everyone. While I would recommend Primer to absolutely anyone – I can’t do that with Upstream Color just because of some of the horrific elements that lace this movie in the first half at least.

Carruth’s musical soundtrack has added a level of foreboding that takes it to another level. The only person that probably could have done better would have been Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Which is high high praise coming from me and my love for the Social Network soundtrack. That coupled with Carruth’s use of the montage throughout to convey vast somes of flashback information and data at high volumes quickly means this movie is just crackling with tension and stress.


“There is nothing special about the water, the wall holding back hunger and thirst has fallen. You may now eat and drink.”

Upstream Color is a masterpiece. I have got to watch it another 2 or 3 times to really determine, but right now I’d say it easily slips into my top ten movies of all time. There are weaknesses here for sure. I glitched for a second or two at a single moment in the ending. I also thought Carruth leaned a little too heavily on the montage cutting technique heading into the denouement. But these are really petty and I will get into them more in my Upstream Color Explanation blog post. But for now, please know that I think this movie is crazy good.

Where Primer was cold and stagnant – Upstream Color is vibrant and passionate. Where the sound chops was dubbed and flat in Primer – Upstream Color deserves an Oscar. And where Primer was flat grays and blues Upstream Color is a vibrant palette of hot color and gorgeous high definition pigments. Its a fantastic technical movie but it is also a story achievement that has to be watched to be believed. Come ready for Eternal Sunshine and you will be in the right frame of mind. Can’t wait to dissect it from top to bottom.