Netflix Picks: Upstream Color

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For better or worse, Upstream Color is opaque in its storytelling. Director/writer/producer/composer/actor/editor Shane Carruth feels no need to explain why things are happening. He thinks you're an intelligent viewer and doesn't dumb his story down for you to figure things out. Carruth shows everything you need to recognize why the things happening on screen are happening.

The sparse, non-explained way the story is told is Upstream Color's biggest strength and weakness. For people who can invest in the movie, the wonder of discovery adds to the pleasure. Uninvested viewers will find the movie dull – there's little spectacle, and the drama relies on context and subtlety. Carruth's style is not for everyone, but his story is solid.

The film begins by introducing us to its central thread: a mind-affecting parasite. It begins its cycle inside a worm, in the roots of an orchid. If someone consumes the blue substance that the parasite produces it causes some kind of mental connection. In the wordless sequence, Carruth shows us the blue substance on the plant, and the worm with blue on its body. Two boys pour soda over a worm to drink the blue substance and end up play-fighting with unnatural reaction times.

When it infests people, the parasite makes them pliant and open to hypnotic suggestion. An unnamed thief (Thiago Martins), with no explanation, cultivates the parasite. He tazes a woman, Kris (Amy Seimitz), and forces a live worm down her throat. Once the parasite takes hold, he tells her that his head is made of the same material as the sun – she cannot look at his face. He even tells her that she will not be hungry or tired until he allows it. Hypnotized, Kris gives the thief everything he asks for over the course of a few days, even taking out five-figure loans against her house to pay him. When he leaves, his theft complete, he tells her she can feel hunger and exhaustion again. She gorges herself on the contents of her fridge and falls asleep.

When Kris wakes up, the parasite has grown. She sees it moving under her arms and legs, and grabs a kitchen knife in panic. Carruth cuts to a farmer (Andrew Sensenig, dubbed the Sampler by the credits) who is playing a low-frequency sound through huge speakers pointed at the ground. And once again without any explanation at all, Kris arrives and says she can't get the parasite out. The farmer leads her to an operating table and ends up coaxing the worm out of Kris and into a pig — which he tags with Kris' name. Soon after, Kris wakes up again, in her car in the median of a highway. She has no money, no credit, no job and no idea what has happened to her.

That's just the first 20 minutes.

John Carpenter would have shot and scored Kris' time with the parasite inside of her as a horror movie. What the thief does to Kris is horrifying on a primal level, that’s true. But something as lurid as off-Hollywood horror wouldn’t work with Carruth's style. Instead, the whole parasite/theft sequence feels strange and half-unreal – what it must feel like to Kris under the influence of the parasite.

And speaking of scoring, Carruth's music is topnotch. He’s composed an aching beauty that fits perfectly with his intimate directing style. Silence is as significant and weighty as the gentle swell of strings or a metal file on a drain pipe. It's subtle, but it needs to be — Carruth's work bruises easily.

A year after the theft, Kris has begun to put her life back together. She meets a man, with — surprise!— a similar history, named Jeff (Carruth), and they become entangled. What brings them together is outside of themselves. They remember things that may not have happened to either of them and feel powerful emotions with no clear source, raising Carruth's big question: Do we control our identities, or do our identities control us?

Upstream Color is a dance of cycles and symmetry. Seimitz and Carruth aren't going to win any Oscars, but they don't feel like they're acting. Their dialog and behavior feels natural, even at its most erratic – they don't need to sell scenes that feel more candid than scripted. If you can souse out why what's happening is happening, this is a peerless film.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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