Upstream Colour. Dir. Shane Carruth. erbp. 2013.

Upstream Colour is a dreamlike vision of the subjectivity and fragility of reality. The film follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) as her life is transformed into an isolating nightmare of confusion and lies, by the mysterious ‘Thief’, a man who uses parasitic worms to hypnotise his victims before extorting money from them. The worms are part of a life cycle that has a complex relationship to the human world that enables and profits from it: a worm grows in an orchid, the orchid is harvested by E&P Exotics, and the worm is eventually fed to a human by Thief. The victim is puzzlingly summoned by The Sampler, who transfers the worm into a pig. The pig does not suffer from the worm’s presence, instead becoming an unwitting influence over the person whose parasite it now hosts. The Sampler uses this to observe the victims’ lives and ‘sample’ them for his music, which he sells from his label Quinoa Valley Recording Co. Eventually the pig dies and its body is cast into a river, where its corpse feeds the orchids, and the cycle begins anew.

The influence of French New Wave cinema is present in the conversational dialogue style which requires an attentive ear. The storyline, though, resides in an uncomfortable realm of naturalistic science fiction, playing upon long-lived fears such as identity theft, parasitic invasion and brainwashing to create a frighteningly believable situation. The film evades a simple generic definition due to its oblique style; with little dialogue, Carruth’s narrative hangs predominantly on his use of soundscapes and cinematography.

The present-day setting and threadbare script cloak the film in realism, but the use of a shallow depth of field creates a very alien atmosphere. The technique means that the camera focuses on one small element of each shot, with the background slightly unfocused. The camera is therefore able to draw the eye to a particular element, and it often gives the illusion of coming to under a bright light, echoing the literal return to consciousness experienced by The Sampled. The cinematography thus reflects Kris’s reconsideration of the reality of her existence, creating an immersive cinematic experience.  Another consequence of this photographic style is that the shots are presented in an unrealistic and seemly less conscious way than how we see the world with our own eyes. It is as though Carruth is exploring a visual experience of life as a non-human being. This effect is emphasized by the focus placed on animal’s eyes, specifically the eyes of Kris’s pig during the transplant, and later after the abduction of the piglets.

Science fiction is especially visible as an applicable code in the use of macro footage of cells and other microorganisms, rendered in Warholian bright colours which contrast to the white and grey of Carruth’s gloomy America. The close-up shots of decomposing pig corpses are grey and unpleasant, but the bright blue ink-like liquid that emanates from them is surreal and beautiful. The colour bleeds into the orchids’ roots, and is chosen specifically for the aesthetically pleasing but unnatural connotations of the colour blue; this shade represents the disease of the worm, but it is nonetheless riveting and brilliant in the bleak surroundings.

The film’s animals are part of a complicated interdependent relationship with humans. At each stage of the life cycle, a human presence is required to further the process and will reap financial rewards from their interference. The expression ‘life cycle’ is ironic in its usage here, since death and infection are the basis of the events, and each human influence is destructive. Thief knows which orchids will provide his worms because they display evidence of parasitic infection, and it is only through the killing of the piglets that the worm is released into the orchids. Although humans and animals seem to depend upon each other, it is made clear that the cognisance of the humans causes them to behave without the animals’ needs in mind, for instance the Sampler’s killing of the piglets. His reason for this action is unexplained, but the emotional response in the pigs is hugely distressing, made obvious in its human manifestation in Kris and Jeff. This human display of emotion allows Carruth to interpret animal experience through a human lens, symbolic of the way humans view animals in the real world.

Despite the criminal acts which lead up to it, the pig-victim relationship is the most positive one, in the sense that it finds a harmonious balance of power. Having once had a physical bond in the form of the parasite, the pigs’ actions later lead directly to corresponding behaviour and emotion in the humans. For example, Kris’s pig enters the corral and instantly meets Jeff’s pig, bringing the two humans together accordingly. Kris’s phantom pregnancy is also a result of this connection. More positively, it drives Kris to find the pigs, and the film concludes with all The Sampled coming together to care for the animals, thus creating a balance and suggesting that Kris’s loss of identity is resolved. In this way, the film presents a vision of utopia, but one which can only be achieved as a result of great suffering and loss. In finding the pigs, the humans whose lives have been so irrevocably damaged are able to rediscover meaning, without having to fit themselves into a pre-existing model of society. Rather, the image of people living simply and communally on a farm, far from city life, is a modernised version of the American Dream, albeit a bleak and improbable one. The end result for the profiteers is failure.

The profit each human makes is depicted in varying degrees of immorality, because of the way society and the financial world is placed as an enemy to the characters’ humanity. A key example is Jeff’s work with bankers, for whom he is obliged to live under the radar of the law. He describes himself as a drug addict, although it is unclear whether this is true or a false memory caused by being literally drugged by Thief’s parasitic worm. Drug addiction may even be a symbol of the financial world within which he is permanently entangled. Additionally, the bankers who deal with Kris’s traumatic experiences are unsympathetic, and the train which transports working people is portrayed as comparable to the pig corral through the use of graphic matching. The visual connection has resonance not only on the scale of Kris and Jeff’s connection to pigs, but in a wider sense of society as a farm through which people must dedicate themselves to the cogs of civilisation, a wheel which turns with no consideration for educated ‘drop-outs’ like Kris and Jeff. These parallels complicate the way the pigs free the humans from the parasite, but are themselves ultimately kept within the corral. The film thus represents animals as prisoners even after the development of a spiritual relationship to human beings.

The corralled pigs are clearly victims as much as the sampled humans, but this is not represented through anthropomorphism. Instead the pigs’ quality of life is shown through the way their human counterparts respond to the pigs’ experiences. The pigs thus come close to Wells’ notion of the ‘pure animal’, but the human interpretation of their feelings complicates this to a degree. Sampler’s theft of the piglets has a terrible effect on the parents, which is evident through the human couple’s sudden and dramatic change in mood. Kris becomes enormously distressed, disorientated and driven to punch through a glass window. Jeff becomes enraged, fights with two strangers and flings documents from the upper levels of a building. The couple are inspired to flee, though they are not sure of their destination. They go home. The experience triggers a series of dissociative behaviours in Kris, which ultimately bring the pair to seek the cause of their problems.

Thus, humans are represented in Upstream Colour’s fatalistic reality as listless workers, and pigs as similarly oppressed creatures, with the single purpose of providing information for The Sampler. There is irony here, because the human victims’ fates are intertwined with the animals that they encounter, but it is not this connection which entraps them, but the reality of which they were previously a part. In a bizarre and problematic way, these traumatised people become free, at the cost of the lives they have fought to regain. Liberation from society is portrayed as an admirable achievement, but its future is left to our imagination, as is the future of the human –animal relationship. The bleak landscapes and melancholic soundtrack express a pessimistic attitude both towards the film’s depcition of social structures and the alternative posed by the ending of the film. Thus the nature of animal existence seems inevitably tied to exploitation and domestication. The painting of the corral a bright yellow at the end of the film seems, in this light, a pitiful attempt to conceal the cold metal beneath, showing the way in which humans ultimately cater for their own tastes and experiences.

Thus, the representation of animals in Upstream Colour has origins in the deep-rooted fears of the post-war psyche of the twentieth-century developed world: mere worms become nematodes, parasites which have fantastical and horrible effects on the human body, catalysing a hypnotic state in which cognisance is stifled. The worm thus disables a bastion of humanity: our ability to speak for ourselves, to control finances, to possess property. The home, a place of safety even for the cog in the machine who rides the commuter train, is here under attack. Pigs become conduits for information, lacking individuality or even a moralized visual significance, with their incommunicable personal desires quashed by human power, and their offspring slaughtered. This interpretation speaks not of the nature of worms and pigs, but of the humans who breed and process them. Carruth does, dreamily, attempt resolution, but for Kris it comes at the high price of infertility. Reproduction represents a final bastion of individual choice and expression for Kris and it seems all the more important in the film’s world of limited personal freedom. Her pig’s new brood become surrogate children, in a conclusion which demonstrates the revolutionary power of a simple empathetic bond between human and pig, a bond which was realised through Kris and Jeff, two lonely people, learning to interact with each other. Thus an alternative representation of animals is offered; in receiving Kris’s worm, her pig passively allowed itself to become a kind of spiritual guide. The sense of the animal as a Christ figure is not overt, because of the realism with which animals are portrayed. However, the private sense of a spiritual journey is evocative of narratives exploring the American dream; for Kris, attainment of the dream is found in the rediscovery of identity. It leads her through the loss of her very identity into a brighter world, in which she finds something entirely new: love.

It is hard to link Upstream Colour to a tradition or school of filmmaking, just as it is hard to pin down its generic forms; the film is absorbed in its own reality and visual identity. In terms of cinematography, there are similarities to Andrea Arnold’s social realist masterpiece Fish Tank (2009), which transcends the kitchen-sink conventions of Loachian cinema through the use of hyperrealist camerawork. Arnold enhances certain elements of the film, in particular small sounds like breathing or bodily movements, in order to create an almost oppressive intimacy between viewer and screen. We are drawn into an uncomfortable world from which we will not easily escape, as implicitly disturbing an environment as Carruth produces with his own use of immersive sound and music. Arnold uses many animals in her film to symbolise different elements of humanity, in particular a tethered horse which bewitches the similarly oppressed Mia.

Biography / Further Reading

Fish Tank. Dir. Andrea Arnold. UK, BBC Films, 2009.

The Tree of Life. Dir. Terrence Malick. USA, River Road Entertainment, 2011.

Upstream Colour. Dir. Shane Carruth. USA, erbp, 2013.

Upstream Colour (2013)- IMDb [online] [accessed 28 November 2013].

Upstream Colour Official Website [online] [accessed 28 November 2013].

‘Upstream Color w/ Shane Carruth of Primer (B-Movies Interview)’, CraveOnline [online]–4pZKkyIN0 [accessed 28 November 2013].

Wells, Paul, The Animated Bestiary (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Wickman, Forrest, ‘FAQ: Upstream Color’, Slate, [accessed 28 November 2013].

Wood, Michael, ‘At the Movies’, London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 18, September 2013. [online] [accessed 28 November 2013].

Zooscope Animals in Film Archive [online] [accessed 28 November 2013].

Words by Sophie Maxwell