Ed. note: This article appears in the April edition of D Magazine. Shane Carruth will be appearing at a special screening of his new film Upstream Color tonight at the Angelika Film Center. The new movie opens at the Angelika on Friday.
Just as quickly as Richardson native Shane Carruth exploded onto the filmmaking scene in 2004, the unknown talent disappeared. Carruth had been living every aspiring filmmaker’s fantasy. He shot his first film, Primer, for just $7,000. The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and Carruth was heralded as a great new voice of independent film. His sci-fi thriller about cubicle warriors wrestling with the complications of time travel attracted a cult following and a reputation as perhaps the most conceptually “realistic” time travel movie ever made. Then no one heard from Carruth for nearly a decade, and his film career became a riddle every bit as baffling as his heady debut.
What happened to Shane Carruth? Had the self-taught self-starter fallen into a gap in the space-time continuum? Or, worse, was he merely a one-hit wonder? Perhaps, then, the most appropriate reaction to this month’s release of Upstream Color, Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to Primer, is relief. Shane Carruth has made another fi lm, and it’s a pretty darn good one.
Like Primer, Upstream Color is beautiful, complicated, and dense. It features a confusing, convoluted narrative style, but Upstream Color’s ambiguity bears the mark of a pure, instinctual filmmaking talent, of a creative mind that can hold onto an ornately structured story with a delicate, fascinating tension. And, as a story, Upstream Color shows signs of maturation. Submerged in its sci-fi scenario, which involves ingesting worms, operating on pigs, and recording and playing back the sound of the Earth to the Earth (picture giant speakers directed at the ground), the film is a moving and melancholic love story about dislodged identity, isolation, and existential floundering.
As it turns out, that might be an accurate way to describe the last decade of Carruth’s life, most of which he spent withdrawn from the world, living in suburban Dallas with, as he puts it, “very little interaction with people.”
After the success of Primer, Carruth started working on his second film, but he grew frustrated with the rigmarole of making a movie within the film industry. It took him eight years and a failed project to realize that if he was going to make another movie, he had to approach it like Primer, a grass-roots project that gave the filmmaker complete control of nearly every aspect of production. He also told himself that he had to make the film so he could get the hell out of Dallas.
“When I decided to make the film, it was part of a plan,” Carruth says. “‘This film is going to start shooting on this date, and it is going to be finished, and then I am going to find another place to live where I don’t sit in an empty house all day not talking to people.’”
The new movie, in its way, shows the scars of his darker days in the Dallas burbs. Upstream Color tells the story of a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is victimized by a man who uses a strange worm to drug people, achieving a kind of hypnotic control, and then instructs them to empty their bank accounts. Once the man has milked Kris for all she’s worth, she is left on the kitchen floor watching the worms that have bred in her body crawl beneath her skin.
Upstream Color has its squeamish moments, but Carruth’s movie is also elegiac and moving. The stranger aspects of the story intermingle with a relationship drama colored by the lingering effects of trauma. When Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth), both characters have been stripped of their personal histories and identities—in Kris’ case, even parts of her memory—and they struggle to put each other back together.
With all of Upstream Color’s solar flashes, slow-panning, and lingering tracking shots, it is hard not to think of Terrence Malick, that other famously hermetic and cerebral director. Like Malick’s work, Carruth’s film unfolds through lush, beautiful imagery set to a swelling, tidal soundtrack (Carruth wrote the score himself, and the film picked up a Special Jury Prize for sound design at Sundance). But there is also something of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) in Carruth’s style, a highmindedness that employs sci-fi paranoia in an effort to explore ideas of alienation and identity against a metaphoric backdrop of malevolent technology.
Upstream Color isn’t perfect. Its resolution is a little neat and maybe a little slight, and Carruth’s spare, obscured characters never quite feel in full bloom. And though the narrative style places the viewer within the disorienting world inhabited by these characters, it can also push the viewer out. Yet the film’s achievement is that its stylistic acrobatics do manage to trigger a real emotional current. Perhaps the most powerful of these moments comes late in the film. Kris is suffering from night frights, and she believes she hears noises beneath the house. Panicked, the couple grabs an ax, flashlight, and other supplies and hides in the bathroom. We never know whether what she is hearing is real or imagined, but that hardly matters. Kris and Jeff hold on to each other in the bathtub as Carruth’s camera hovers overhead.
It can be distracting to read too much of an artist’s autobiography into his work, but watching this poignant scene, these two desperate, troubled lovers grasping each other, you can’t help but think that Carruth himself discovered something while he was locked away in the outskirts of Dallas. Upstream Color is a fi lm about characters in a wounded mental state who encounter fear, trembling on their way toward discovering an emotional reliance, a genuine need and affection for another. Perhaps it took something traumatic to help Carruth figure out how to make films again. Perhaps it is only that he has once again found the means to tell the stories he has had in him all along. Either way, now that Carruth’s second film is finally here, we can brace ourselves for more.