Shane Carruth is one of those names you kinda have to be super-nerdy to know. Prior to Upstream Color, he made one feature, called Primer, lauded by many who saw it as the best time-travel movie ever made.
I was not one of those doing the lauding – watching Primer felt like when you’re a kid and some fancy-ass grownup used big words around you to prove they’re smart. Carruth probably worked things out incredibly well, but by deliberately not explaining to the viewer what was happening, it gave the thing more of an illusion of complexity than a sense that it was actually complicated. I don’t need every detail spelled out, but don’t deliberately withhold and then tell me I’m not smart enough to get it. Or, I mean, do it if you want. I just won’t give you a rave review.
My friend Rian Johnson, however, loved it so much he got Carruth to help him with the time-travel logic in Looper, which is a much better film. And thus, I figured when Carruth’s long-anticipated second film finally opened, it would be geeky enough that I could write about it here.
I’m not sure if I was right or not. It’s that kind of movie. This I do know – as abstract and surreal as it is, I like it about a million times more than Primer. Besides, there’s nothing else remotely geeky opening this week – what am I gonna do, recommend 42? Anyone saying Scary Movie 5 needs to sit back down and keep drinking.
I’ll try to summarize at least the beginnings of the plot as best I can. There’s this guy (Thiago Martins) digging in his garden for grubs, looking to find the perfect one, which he then puts inside a pill that he gives to a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) at a club. She chokes on the wormy thing, goes unconscious and he kidnaps and hypnotizes her. After several exercises in control, he convinces her to basically give him all her money, and then she wakes up back at home, but with multiple worms clearly wriggling under her skin.
She loses her job working on a movie, takes one at a sign company, and goes to see a weird-ass healer who’s also a sound recordist. He removes the worms from her in a bizarre ritual involving live piglets.
Then she meets a guy on the train into work: Jeff, played by Carruth himself. Jeff hits on her, they go on a date, she reveals she’s on meds for something serious, while he reveals he’s a divorced former drug addict who’s been lying about his job. Time passes uncertainly: they get married, they start confusing their own youthful memories, she has crazy episodes and can’t remember a cancer she supposedly had. Meanwhile, the healer guy and the pig farm keep reappearing, most oddly during a sex scene. Metaphor, or just literal weirdness? Maybe.
While the title seems to make the most obvious sense in relation to his previous film – you have to lay down primer before painting with color; will his third movie be called Sealant? – my understanding of it by the end is that it’s a statement about relationships. They’re an upstream swim but the colors at the end are worth the journey. I think the woman in the relationship here is the slightly crazy and more damaged one because that reflects the perspective of the male director (who also happens to be the male lead) – a female director would likely do the opposite in a similar tale.
Does the implantation of the worm represent a past date-rape? Are the pigs in the pen meant to be us? I think no on both counts. I suspect Carruth wants our thoughts to go there, but I also think in his world, those worms are real things and not stand-ins; if they mean anything deeper, it’s on a subconscious level and we’ll leave the rest to the Room 237 oddballs.
Like Claire Denis, who tackled vampires with similar style in Trouble Every Day, Carruth is the sort of director who likes to show the scenes that take place between the important things, occasionally omitting those important scenes and letting you figure them out in context. That’s maddening with a logic puzzle like Primer, but effective on an emotional journey like this one, where the little things are sometimes what we remember most. Don’t ask me to explain the ending, because I can’t – but the next time I talk to Rian, I’ll have him take me through it.
Was this, in the end, sci-fi? I’d hate to have to define it. I like to call present-day movies with malleable rules of reality (a la David Lynch) “modern fantasy,” but I’ve never seen that take as a catchphrase. For the adventurous nerd, though, this is arguably a gateway drug to artsier indies – give us some creepy worm action, and you’ll get our attention. Deliver something resonant after that, and you get my thumbs-up.