Director: Shane Carruth
Runtime: 96 minutes
Just as great performances and direction can elevate average material, bad performances and direction sink promising material. A film like Joe Wright's Hanna is a great example of the former. The film's screenplay is littered with flaws, but Wright and his cast smooth out the bumps through their strong work. Shane Carruth's Sundance sensation Upstream Color is, unfortunately, a disastrous example of the latter. Though its concept and ideas are rich with potential, Carruth's sophomore effort suffers from flat direction, poor writing, and awful performances at every turn, with only one exception.
That exception is Amy Seimetz as Kris, the story's female lead. One night at a club, Kris is given a strange drug (actually a small worm), and suddenly becomes a weak-willed slave to the man who drugged her (Thiago Martins). In the early stages of her captivity, Upstream Color comes closest to achieving the atmosphere it strives for. Watching Kris perform a series of bizarre tasks and rituals is hypnotic, in part because there's nothing overtly menacing about what her captor is asking her to do. Seimetz brings a quiet sensitivity to the role. Over the course of the film, she endures the bulk of the psychological suffering as she tries to put her life back together. There are false moments here and there, but on the whole, the actress comes off rather well. Her face has a delicate expressiveness to it that is critical to making the character work.
Unfortunately, her captor is less compelling. Martins' manipulator avoids any over-the-top theatrics, although part of this is due to the fact that he barely seems to act at all. Martins sounds like a bored teenager forced to do a school play, and his control over Kris feels laughable the longer the film goes on. Yet Martins' role in the grand scheme of things is small. More important is Kris' bond with fellow recovering victim Jeff (Carruth). Carruth brings effort to his work behind the camera, but he appears to have forgotten to try in front of it. His work opposite Seimetz is so bafflingly in its laziness that you wish Keanu Reeves would appear to liven things up a little. It's one thing to have disposable side characters give flat performances, but to have the film's worst turn come from one of its leads is disastrous.
With abstract work like Upstream Color, solid performances (or at least an effective presence) can help ground viewers in whatever is passing for a narrative. Just yesterday I saw To the Wonder, which has a lovely turn from Olga Kurylenko at its core that holds the film together. And even the other actors, though not given much to work with, bring a professional level of presence to their roles. That's sadly not the case with Upstream Color, which plays more like a pretentious student film that somehow managed to steal a bunch of grant money.
What's most frustrating here is that Upstream Color has potential buried amid all of the pretense. Carruth's dedication to abstract story telling is admirable, and the basic elements of his plot could have blossomed into a marvelous portrait of emotional turmoil and paranoia. It's a shame that he wasn't able to execute his vision with more substance to back it all up. Only the cinematography and score remain consistent throughout, elevating the film above its obviously small budget. Yet they're ultimately left trying to create the atmosphere, rather than enhance or compliment it. This is most evident with the score, which is impressive in its own right, yet is tasked with propping up a bunch of empty artsy navel gazing. There's no real sense of pacing either, leaving the film feeling far longer than its 96 minute duration. In short, it's a nauseatingly pretentious bore, that is compelling only in fleeting moments. The only thing more puzzling than Carruth's performance, is that Upstream Color has garnered such acclaim to begin with.