Review: Upstream Color (Proving Hypnotism is Mean)

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Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer was a low budget, high concept time travel drama that sidestepped science fiction to look at how we subjectively experience time. His sophomore effort, Upstream Color, also investigates the conflict between subjective and projected realities, but this time through the POV of a girl who’s infected with a parasite and manipulated into undoing the life she's built.

Mind control is a fascinating enough phenomenon but it’s not Carruth’s primary interest. He’s curious about how our observations form our perspectives and how easily we can be upended.

The main character, Kris (Amy Seimetz), appears to be a successful professional. Under hypnosis, she signs her savings and mortgage over to the hypnotist. The sequence communicates a stunning sort of vacancy that’s impersonal and motivation-less. You find yourself thinking, “This must be reversible. It’s hardly more than a game.” But it’s a game made of multiple players each conspiring to destroy her for their own unclear agendas, and the mixture of elided motivation and cooperative victim make the sequence feel like a metaphor, or a dream. It's neither.

When we find Kris years later she’s almost unrecognizable: she meets Jeff (Carruth) on public transport and he’s attracted to her despite her obvious brokenness. He’s broken too: has a history of embezzlement and acts shamed by a divorce. They seem to share the same childhood—literally. Kris recalls a story about almost drowning that Jeff later repeats as his own. Jeff tries to take Kris to revisit the site of a childhood vacation, ostensibly to prove who's memory it is, but they can’t find it by map or memory.

The vulnerabilities and shared histories suggest they’re both victim to the same crime, and they unravel a system of wholly organic mechanisms that, like them, absorb information and change as a result. It's a world of fleshy textures: water gurgles past river rocks, a farmer records the crunching sound of stones in a pipe, the morning is a blown out close up of gauzy detail. This is a very sensory world, and it's demanding we interpret its tactile realities to understand it. Blurred boundaries between scenes, characters, narrative and dream makes Upstream Color feel like it’s aiming for hifalutin attention, but it’s less pretention that that sounds. It wants you to feel and question your observations; see your senses as mechanisms and realize they can be even more…despite the world’s conspiracy to confuse us.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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