Pigs, parasitic worms, paper chains, and orchids, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color has many people saying simply “What the Fuck?” And it is not hard to see why. The main narrative is outlandish to say the least, but it is the style in which the film is presented that baffles the mind. From start to finish it challenges the viewer’s mental capacities, and is a picture you truly must see to understand. It is a story of love, loss and self-discovery.
The film is broken into three different chapters each characterized by a distinct cut to black. In the first chapter, we are introduced to a young woman named Kris who is put into some kind of hypnotic state by a man who feeds her a mysterious white grub. The man uses his control over Kris to steal all of her possessions, and essentially her life. In an interesting turn of events, the grub Kris has ingested turns out to be some form of parasite that a pig farmer removes from her and transfers into a small pig. This first portion of the film is about the loss of one’s self. The idea is that we are all broken people, and when you strip away our jobs, homes and belongings we are left searching for something. It is not clear exactly what, but that is where part two of the film comes in.
In the second portion of the film Kris meets a man named Jeff, who through subtle clues, it is revealed has experienced the same infection and theft Kris has. He is as equally broken and lost, and the two fall in love. As Jeff and Kris’s relationship progresses their lives are closely paralleled with two pigs on a farm. These are the two pigs that contain the parasitic worms transferred from their bodies. This second portion of the film is about a search for inner self. The two use one another to probe within themselves and discover what they have lost. Jeff and Kris slowly uncover traces of what has happened to them until they are finally able to locate the pig farmer known as the Sampler. Kris shoots the Sampler, and discovers a box filled with images of the people he has sampled, each one is attached to a photo of a pig. The couple gathers all of the previous victims together at the pig farm, which leads us into part three.
The third segment is brief but powerful. It is about the finding of oneself. Kris takes over the pig farm and is reunited with the part of her she has lost, which is now embodied in a small piglet. In the final shot Kris holds the pig close and the two are at peace, truly happy for the first time in the entire picture. If this all seems more than a bit confusing that is ok because it is. However, if the narrative is viewed symbolically rather than literally some understanding can be found. The pigs aren’t really pigs, they are embodiments of our inner selves. The grub is something purely human which links us all together, sin, or brokenness perhaps. At no point should a physical representation be taken solely for what it is otherwise you will be left perpetually scratching your head.
On top of this bizarre and highly metaphoric narrative, the film is structured in a very unique way. Time is never given any firm grounding, as it is unimportant to the story. Further, there is little to no exposition; Carruth has faith in his viewers that they do not need to be babied. He allows for, and expects, assumptions from the audience. To watch the film is an interactive experience because you constantly must be looking for subtle clues that guide the way. The editing is also disjointed, there are enumerable jump cuts and the occasional match cut giving it a muddled almost stream of consciousness feel. At several points we will see the same character at two or even three different places and times in a single sequence.
Upstream Color is something far from the norm of traditional American cinema, and the themes I have identified only begin to scratch the surface of this highly complex film. Carruth claims that he was attempting to create a cinematic experience that explores the idea of subjective realities, and it seems he has succeeded. The film can only be explained in a subjective manner. What is the worm? Why is each victim linked to a pig? I have my own interpretations, but so will everyone else, and it is likely they will vary greatly. No one is right or wrong, everything is relative.