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Film / Upstream Color

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"After he had lain still there about an hour he heard a low and seemingly very distant sound, but singularly grand and impressive, unlike anything he had ever heard, gradually swelling and increasing as if it would have a universal and memorable ending, a sullen rush and roar, which seemed to him all at once like the sound of a vast body of fowl coming in to settle there, and, seizing his gun, he started up in haste and excited; but he found, to his surprise, that the whole body of the ice had started while he lay there, and drifted in to the shore, and the sound he had heard was made by its edge grating on the shore- at first gently nibbled and crumbled off, but at length heaving up and scattering its wrecks along the island to a considerable height before it came to a standstill."

Upstream Color is a 2013 independent film written, directed, and scored by Shane Carruth. This is his long-anticipated sophomore film following the 2004 cult hit Primer. Much like that film, it was made on a small budget (~$50,000) with Carruth taking a large role in the production.

The film follows Kris, a graphic designer who is drugged by a small-time thief and has her life flipped upside-down because of it. She later has a chance meeting with a man named Jeff, who has a similar story. Unbeknownst to the two of them, they are caught in the metaphysical life-cycle of an ageless organism, traveling through "the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again", and begin mirroring its actions.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Aggressive Drug Dealer: Played with. The Thief initially tries to trick someone into swallowing the worm by hiding them in a capsule and attempting to sell them as recreational drugs outside a club. When that doesn't work, he pulls out a stun gun and force-feeds Kris.
  • Babies Ever After: In a way, as new generations of piglets are born after the former parasite hosts take over from the Sampler.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: An unusual example. Kris and Jeff's first few scenes together are tense, awkward and irritable, yet they are unconsciously drawn to each other because of their shared past with the parasite.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: The Thief and the Sampler, though it isn't clear if they even work together or if they just benefit from each other's schemes.
  • Body Horror: The parasite invades your body and can be seen slithering under your skin.
  • Brainwashed: A realistic variation of this trope happens to those infected with the parasite.
  • Chekhov's Gun: An early scene reveals that Kris owns a pistol. It's seen several more times before the end, when she uses it to kill the Sampler.
  • Color Motif: While most of the film is dominated by the blue color of the substance, the third act starts to emphasize yellow, which seems to be associated with Kris.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: The parasite's ability to hypnotize people and connect people to each other could have world-changing consequences, but those who control it use it for relatively minor thievery and to create music.
  • Death Glare: Kris levels one at the Sampler when she's finally able to sense his presence.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: As far as we see the Thief only brainwashes Kris to rob her blind, but the way the whole sequence is filmed, particularly his initial attack in the alleyway, is evocative of a sexual assault. Taken further when Kris goes to the doctor and is told that the surgical scars left over from the Sampler extracting the parasites have left her effectively infertile.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Surprisingly, the film ends this way. The Sampler is dead, the drugs are cut off from The Thief and the pigs are being taken care of in a healthy way by Kris, Jeff and other people who have been affected by the parasite.
  • Easy Amnesia: After the parasite is removed, its host has no memory of what happened, causing them to believe that they had a psychiatric breakdown.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The Sampler is seen taking field recordings of metal and brick, then manipulating them into organ and drum sounds, respectively.
  • Fantastic Drug: The blue substance that gets cycled between orchids, worms, people and pigs has properties that link people emotionally to each other.
  • Gory Discretion Shot
    • Kris tries to cut the parasites out of her body. We can see her reactions and hear her anguished cries, but most of the visuals are left off-screen.
    • When Kris shoots the Sampler, we don't hear or see the first shot. Instead, we see only his reaction in his Imagine Spot, where he walks over to a wall and slumps down, clutching his stomach. When we cut back to reality, we only see his legs sticking out from behind a wall as Kris delivers the finishing shots.
  • Hysterical Woman: Kris is more attuned to the empathic side effects of the blue substance, often causing her to do strange things and have emotional outbursts.
  • Imagine Spot: Characters are often shown to be in places that they are not to show that they are somehow connected to the events going on in that location.
    • When the Sampler is sensing the actions of a former host whose parasite he has captured, he's shown standing near the person and observing them.
    • After making love, Kris and Jeff are shown lying in the pig pen near the mated pair of pigs who have received their parasites.
  • Imagine Spotting: When Kris learns of the existence of the Sampler, she's able to see him when he's observing her.
  • Karma Houdini: The Thief is never connected with the conspiracy and gets away without punishment. However, his source is cut off so he'll never be able to do this again.
  • Mind-Control Device: The parasites are an organic version.
  • Mind-Control Music: The Sampler uses a deep pulsing sound to draw recently hypnotized people to him so that he can take their parasites.
  • Mind Link Mates: A side-effect of the parasite. Kris and Jeff becomes lovers, and their mindlink connection is so strong that they start to get their memories confused with each other's.
  • Mind Screw: Just try summarizing the film to someone without them giving a weird look at you.
  • Minimalism: The film leaves a lot of the plot implied or mysterious, and there are fairly long sequences without dialogue.
  • More than Mind Control: The Thief almost always gives reasons for his commands. For example, he doesn't just tell Kris to confine herself to the carpet, he tells her that the tile floor will not support her weight. It doesn't seem to matter how ridiculous his explanation is, however, so long as he gives one that she can understand.
  • Motif: Many images are repeated in different scenes to show how the parasites are connecting people to each other.
  • Mundane Utility: The Thief and the Sampler don't use the blue substance for any grand design. The Thief robs people and the Sampler makes music.
  • Mushroom Samba: While drugged by the Thief, she sees his face as "being made of the sun", simply because he told her so.
  • No Name Given: The villains of the film are credited as the Thief and the Sampler.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Sampler has this reaction when he realizes that Kris can see him.
  • Parting-Words Regret: Frank Mosley's character (credited as Husband) remembers the final conversation with his wife, which is half argument and half Can't Spit It Out.
  • Previews Pulse: The trailer has it.
  • Reveal Shot: Kris and Jeff start making out in a hotel room. Cut to the morning after, where they're laying in beautiful linens…on the floor of a large outdoor pig pen.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The origin of the blue substance is never revealed. We also never learn the exact relationship between the Thief and the Sampler. Were they in a knowing partnership or an unwitting symbiotic relationship?
  • Sarcasm Failure: In one of their first meetings, Kris tries to drive Jeff away by revealing that she's on medication. He sarcastically states that they should part ways immediately, but she thinks he's being serious. He apologizes, admitting that his sarcasm was completely inappriopriate and he has no idea what to say to her.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: Like Primer before this, several details of the story are merely implied by what is happening on screen.
  • Shout-Out: Walden plays an important role in the film.
  • Silence Is Golden: Large sections of the second and third acts go without dialogue.
  • Synchronization:
    • Two boys are able to mimic each other's movements with their eyes closed.
    • Kris and Jeff start remembering each other's personal histories as their own.
    • Jeff begins to fight and Kris starts to break down in their respective surroundings at the same time that a hog and sow are separated from their piglets.
    • Just as the blue substance is transferred from host to host to complete its life cycle, the conspiracy to profit from it is a symbiotic relationship, with each stage of the plan making a different use of the substance's properties and passing it along to the next stage.
  • Stealing from the Hotel: Jeff is allowed to dine in a hotel kitchen due to business connections, but he and Kris also help themselves to some toiletries while giggling.
  • Women Are Wiser: Kris is more attuned to the blue substance's empathic side-effects. She's the one who can hear the humming noise, recall the words of Walden that she was forced to transcribe, guide the pair to the Sampler's pig farm, and ultimately identify the sampler. The trope is inverted in the sense that she comes across like a Hysterical Woman sometimes because she's usually on a different frequency.
  • Word Salad Title: The title sounds like two random words until it becomes clear that it refers to the riverside orchids that turn blue as a result of parasite-infected piglets washing upstream.
  • You Can See Me?: The Sampler spies on people by using the substance and observes than by appearing to stand beside them. When he does this to Kris, she eventually turns and levels a Death Glare at him, revealing that she knows he's spying on her.