I don’t usually review older films, but my guess is that few, if any, of my readers will have seen, or even heard of, the strange films of Shane Carruth, so I thought I should introduce you to those films (since I like them a lot). Carruth has only released two films, both of which he wrote (including the score) and directed, and in both of which he played a lead role.
Carruth’s first film, Primer, was released in 2004. It was made for a paltry $7000, making it a super-super-low-budget film, and it sometimes looks like it was made for $7000, but it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year and I won't argue with that decision.
Primer tells the story of two young men (Abe and Aaron, played by David Sullivan and Carruth) who accidentally create a time machine in a home garage. As Abe and Aaron try to understand the implications of this, their lives spiral out of control in a hurry, not least because they spend so little time considering the consequences (especially the ethical consequences) of their actions.
Outside of Carruth and Sulivan, all of the actors in the film are non-actors. The cinematography and score vary from very good to okay and locations are chosen for their low cost (generally free). Whats sets Primer apart, and caused it to win at Sundance, is the intelligence of its fascinating and engaging, though understated, time-travel story. Carruth is an engineer and a mathematician as well as a filmmaker, which makes it possible for him to think through the logic of a time-travel narrative in a more satisfying way than most. I confess, however, that I still can’t get my head around what happened in the last ten minutes or so (I’ll watch the last half hour again today). Until I do, I can only award Primer ***. So I watched the last twenty minutes three times and listened to the commentary without getting farther ahead, but then I found a wonderful article on Primer by Jason Gendler which is ever-so-helpful and reveals just how incredibly complex Primer actually is. So, while the fundamental logical impossibility of time-travel remains (as far as I am concerned), I am prepared to award Primer ***+. My mug is up.
Upstream Color, which was released in 2014, is a very different kind of film in almost every way. For one thing, it very much falls into the Terence Malick style of filmmaking, with almost no dialogue, gorgeous cinematography (including lots of natural scenes) and a baffling poetic narrative. It comes closest to Tree of Life, may favourite Malick film, though what sets it apart is its horror/sci-fi edge.
Upstream Color begins with the drugging and kidnapping of a young woman (Kris, played by Amy Seimetz), followed by a series of medical experiments (on the woman) that will leave you cringing. In other words, this is a dark film and not for the squeamish. Unaware of what happened to her, but knowing that something bad happened (including the loss of most of her assets), Kris wakes up one day in a car on the side of the road. She loses her job and her life declines. A year later, while riding the subway, she meets Jeff (Carruth), who has also been the subject of experiments from the same strange experimenter, and who shares an almost telepathic connection with Kris. Together, they try to piece together what is going on while struggling to hold on to their sanity.
Along the way, you have roundworms, pigs and orchids, and a very strange man, playing a key role in what is happening to Kris and Jeff, and that’s all you want to know (not that I could begin to tell you what happens in this very cerebral film). Don’t watch this film alone - you’ll need help to unravel its story and message (and use of colour).
Upstream Color is a much higher quality piece of filmmaking than Primer, in every way, with the cinematography this time varying only from very good to outstanding, with a higher quality of acting (especially by Seimetz) and with much surer direction. Like Primer, though, what sets Upstream Color apart if the intelligence of its screenplay and the way it doesn’t talk down to its audience. And while I called it a cerebral film, it is the emotional power of some of its scenes that carry the greatest impact. Upstream Color is a thoughtful mesmerizing film that gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.