Shane Carruth in Upstream ColorFans of Shane Carruth’s directorial debut Primer – a low budget sci-fi flick that not only earned the filmmaker the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, but a reverent cult following – have had to wait patiently for nine years to finally witness the talented director’s return, with his sophomore feature Upstream Color finally upon us. Now with a degree of pressure placed upon him, and an expectant audience in place, Carruth has remained loyal to his provocative, enigmatic style of filmmaking, presenting a beguiling and elusive romantic drama that will certainly divide opinions.

Defining Upstream Color or attempting to divulge any information about the narrative is no easy task, as a film that is almost like a cinematic puzzle, with a variety of images and concepts that come together to form this quite frugal piece of cinema. At the heart of the tale is Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman who loses her sense of identity when brainwashed by a thief (Thiago Martins) who uses maggots to get inside her head and hypnotise his victim before stealing all of her money. Kris proceeds to visit The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who rids the vulnerable woman of her trauma by transplanting the maggots into a pig from his farm. Kris then meets Jeff (Carruth) on her journey to work, and as a fellow former sufferer of the poisonous parasite himself, the two lost souls strike up an intense bond, though their indistinguishable relationship poses more questions – as they seem to be connected by something far greater than they can comprehend.

There is no denying that Upstream Color is a beautifully crafted, visual spectacle of a film, with shades of Terrence Malick evident in this regard. With a modest 90 minute running time, Carruth allows himself the chance to be artistic and elegant, avoiding tedium thanks to keeping his story short and sweet; any longer and it would have driven the viewer to the edge of insanity. Cerebral and stimulating, this is a film certain to stick with you, and whether you like it or not, it will linger long in the memory. Though these memories may not be the most favourable, it’s always an achievement for a director if they’re able to provoke such thought and consideration from their audience, asking many questions and leaving so many unanswered and open ended. Meanwhile, before delving into the negative aspects to this title – Seimetz is stunning as our lead, turning in an absorbing performance, with a touch of Maxine Peake about her demeanour, which is certainly no bad thing.

The one adjective that you do find yourself bandying around post-screening, however, is that of the word pretentious, a word Carruth will struggle to shake off with this latest offering. We can certainly see the filmmaker’s vision shining through and can guess at what he is hoping to achieve with Upstream Color, but it may have been of benefit had he taken a step back and allowed others to become more involved. Carruth is not only the writer, director and co-lead, but he is a producer, cinematographer, editor, and even the original music is his very own. It’s simply too much, and his empowerment over this title is somewhat overbearing.

There will certainly be an audience for this film, and those who will connect with it, so in that respect criticisms seems almost futile, and it’s very easy to disregard negative reviews as people who quite simply “don’t get it”, yet this isn’t the case at all – it is possible to understand and appreciate what Carruth is offering the viewer, and yet not fully engage with the film on an emotional level, and if you don’t emotionally invest in this film, it certainly makes it difficult to enjoy, as the glaring flaws become obtrusive. Upstream Color is the sort of film you may come back to one day and find a real appreciation for, however for now, this just isn’t quite the inspiring ride that one had hoped to embark upon.