In 10 Words or Less
The circle of life was never like this
Loves: Non-linear storytelling, mindbenders, art films
Likes: Primer, Fringe
Dislikes: Complex films lacking extras
Hates: How upsetting this film can be
As the official Shane Carruth film reviewer here at DVDTalk, it was exciting to hear that his new film, Upstream Color, was making a quick transition to home video. I had limited my exposure to the discussion surrounding the movie, hoping to approach this film as blank as possible in terms of knowledge and expectations. But as anyone who was fascinated by Carruth's previous film, Primer, knows, that's a lofty task, since the community, discussion, theories and explanations that grew from and surrounded that tale of time travel were such an integral part of the experience. I did however watch the movie's trailer, which was the perfect lead-in, as it told almost nothing of the plot, while still drawing you in with a blend of mystery and artistry.
To explain the plot of Upstream Color is to ruin the film for anyone who hasn't seen it, but painting a picture with broad, vague strokes might not offend, and would fit in well with how the film tells its story. Basically, either a series of coincidences or a chain of disturbingly well-planned events have awful, sci-fi-tinged effects on the lives of a man and a woman, and as they try to figure out what has happened and what is happening, it becomes obvious that it might be worse than they thought. By the time the credits roll, you may not be entirely satisfied with how everything played out, or even very sure about what you've just seen, but this film is more about the experience and watching how the mystery unfolds. (It also leaves open many opportunities to project onto the story lots of big concepts of life and love, though that may be reaching, as the story feels pretty neatly wrapped up.)
While Primer was a very complex tale of time travel, made all the more difficult to clearly comprehend by the possibilities inherent in the paradoxes associated with going backward in time, it was a relatively straightfoward film. That's not the case with Upstream Color, which uses non-linear storytelling, some very artistic filmmaking techniques and the simple act of not telling the audience everything that's happening to leave the viewer as confused and off-balanced as the film's stars. I'll fully admit there were elements of the story that didn't make complete sense plot-wise until some character names in the credits helped piece a few things together. but even so, it didn't interfere with any enjoyment of the Fringe-ish story, which manages to establish just the right sense of dread and fleshes ouit the characters even while keeping you at arm's length. In fact, the sense that you could never know with any certainty where or when you were at any point aided in putting you just as much on-edge as the main subjects. This obviously makes additional viewings less suspensefu and impactfull, but more enlightening in terms of understanding what is going on.
With a film as unique and somewhat obtuse as this, it is easy to accuse Carruth of some level of pretentiousness, (and admittedly there were some moments that seem to only serve to create gorgeous frames of film) but for the most part, the film doesn't stray too far from a very interesting, as well as very upsetting story, which unfolds in bits and pieces with beautiful imagery and one of the most present audio presentations in recent memory. Everything that's in your eyes or in your ears is part of a work of art and the feeling they impart lends the story that much more of an impact. If I had to compare it to another film, the only thing that comes to mind is Paul Thomas Anderson's underrated, though far more mainstream Punch-Drunk Love. But while they share tone and artistry, that film is far more concrete in its presentation. Either way, they are both something to behold.
Upstream Color arrives in a two-disc set, one Blu-ray, one DVD, which are packed in a two-tray digipack with a small paper wrapper around it. The discs feature animated menus offering a choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. Audio options include English DTS-HS Master Audio 5.1 and 20 tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH.
It can be hard to judge a film like this, which is often very dreamy in its visuals, because what might be a problem is just as likely a style choice. Assuming all the soft images, color variations and such are part of the look of the film (and with Carruth self-releasing the film there's no reason not to) everything looks good, with seemingly appropriate color and a high level of fine detail. There are no obvious issues with digital distractions, resulting in an overall pleasing presentation.
The audio presentation here, delivered via a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, is one of the best I've ever experienced. The mix of evocative music, striking sound effects and expertly recorded dialogue results in an aural environment that does as much or more to create the film's enveloping atmosphere as any other element available. There are so many moments in this film that are sold purely by how they sound, and this track presents it all wonderfully. Whatever you do though, don't watch the film while drowsy, as it will lull you into a comforting haze only to knock you upside the head with a heart-attack inducing sonic barrage (not to mention how it will decrease your chance of understanding the plot and increase your opportunity for creepy nightmares.
Sadly, after giving us some excellent commentary tracks on Primer, this release offers only three trailers for the film, which are at least awesome.
The Bottom Line
Upstream Color is a niche film to be sure. As I described the plot to a mainstream-friendly pal I was certain would not watch it, the response was, "I hate this movie," despite him having never seen a frame. It's aimed squarely at those who appreciate an artful touch and who can accept an experimental presentation that forces you to think and contemplate what you watched, rather than being spoon-fed. That presentation looks and sounds great, but is severely lacking in bonus content, so you've probably got to be a Carruth fan already to need to own this, but anyone who appreciates the beauty of invasive storytelling should check it out.