Upstream Color: my impressions/analysis


If you haven’t seen Upstream Color, it is my recommendation that you do so. Shane Carruth’s first film in nine years since Primer, is what I consider (and many critics see as), the best film of the year. I know the year isn’t over and there are plenty of films that have had praise that I’ve yet to see. But Upstream has now set a standard for me in modern filmmaking. Much like Primer, Carruth directed, produced, composed, edited, and distributed the movie himself. Oh and he stars in it too.

[I fear at this point I have to install a POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT here. Although I can’t really imagine relating any part of Upstream as a spoiler to readers, I strongly suggest watching it because my analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own background. I’ve tried my best to keep with how other reviews have been written without spoiler alerts, however, it is an analysis as well.  The beauty of this movie is that individual interpretation is completely open to each viewer. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT regardless. But if you read, go out and see it for yourself and form your own conclusions.]

Watch the trailer: and buy the movie here: (or see it at a theatre if you find it).

Kris (played beautifully by Amy Seimetz), is a woman who has been drugged with psychotropic worms by someone called The Thief  (Thiago Martins), and is mentally controlled into giving up all her finances through the power of suggestion. He utilizes passages from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” and mindless patterned tasks to distract and control her. When The Thief is done, Kris awakens to find her life ruined and her body infested with worms. A sound designer called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), summons her with droning music to a location where she asks to get the worms removed. He extracts the worms and transplants them into a piglet, that is then tagged with the name of the subject (here Kris) and cares for it at his pig farm. Many other pigs with similar tags are seen in the pen as well. There’s a short scene where Kris envisions a room full of other mindless subjects who have met a similar fate.

The worms in turn, go on to posit their ink/color/themselves into the orchids that grow in a forest nearby the pig farm. Hikers harvest these orchids and sell them at markets where the Thief in turn buys them to make his drug.

Kris awakens from her stupor stripped of her identity, and finds herself exiled from the life she once knew. She tries to put together a semblance of a life, taking on a job she is ambivalent about, but states that she is grateful for. Kris then meets Jeff (Carruth), who seems to be another victim of The Thief (displaying the same obsessive behaviors and detachment with the rest of the world as Kris). Through various awkward encounters they find themselves attracted to one another in what seems to be a pull congruent to their pig-counterparts in The Sampler’s pen. We witness them falling in love and finding identity so much so with each other, that the lines between them blur.

I walked out of the theatre both confused, kind of knowing what I had seen, but I just couldn’t manifest it into proper words. I was struck most of all by the cinematography which was very reminiscent to one my favourite film’s, La Jetée by Chris Marker.





Both Upstream and La Jetée are sci-fi movies. Carruth’s Primer is more aligned in that respect to Marker’s film soley due to the time travelling aspect. Yet Upstream brings, not just similar images, but a seamless narrative primarily based on visuals, little dialogue, and a haunting soundtrack. Chris Marker’s film essay (A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary film making styles and which focuses more on the evolution of a theme or an idea.) forms fabula and syuzhet purely through photographs, narrative, and sound. Throughout Upstream, Carruth makes the images incredibly bright and clear that it feels like a lucid dream. In La Jetée, Marker utilizes light and shadow to evoke feelings of menace and of comfort. It is only towards the end that Upstream strips away all dialogue and becomes resplendent with imagery and noise, evoking feelings of discovery and redemption. It’s analogous to La Jetée’s final moments when our subject runs towards his love, and his final fate. Both films create an amazing build up and reveal to its  audience a truth as if it were a brand new day.

From  La Jetée soundtrack:


From Upstream Color soundtrack:

There are also similarities to Terrence Malick’s films, (philosophical, spiritual, natural scenes, and touch. I see Malick uses similar techniques as Chris Marker.). Federico Fellini also comes to mind, particularly in 8 1/2 because in many ways I see a film maker’s/writer’s process in Upstream. Carruth has stated:

“Well, once I knew I was going to be having characters wake up in a moment that they can’t quite explain what it is they’ve done and how it is they did what they did, and they have to adopt some new version of themselves, I needed a construct to make that happen.”

Carruth had a core vision of what he wanted to do, but he needed situations to put these characters in. As a writer myself, figuring that part out is a relatable dilemma. In 8 1/2,  our main character is a director that has the budget and the people ready to film his next masterpiece; however, he finds himself empty of ideas. He’s old and jaded. The director continually looks for solace in the women in his life, memories of his youth, and hedonistic fantasies. In Upstream Color, our characters become bereft of core memories, histories, and basic integrities. They find survival comfort , in one another, thus blurring the line between their individualities.  At the moment of truth, when they confront their “abuser,” they experience a kind of release, hinted at in the films lighter tones of music and color. Meanwhile, Fellini presents a similar denouement as the director sets his final scene on a vast picturesque beach where all of his characters congregate in harmonious symphony.

Many of the analytical reads I’ve encountered for Upstream mention Henry David Thoreau’s Walden’s inclusion in Upstream. For some it’s seen as a key and for others, a red herring. Walden is a novel/journal by Thoreau when he took to living like a hermit in the woods (with the help of his mother and Ralph Waldo Emmerson). It was his experiment in transcendentalism, seeking independence from society, learning more about spirituality, and himself in turn. He farmed and cultivated his own food and built his own house by Walden Pond. Many have focused on Carruth’s use of passages from the novel, mostly where Thoreau mentions the cultivation of men and worms. I see the book as a means for Carruth to guide his audience. Carruth himself is isolated from much of the film world etiquettes being D.I.Y. about everything in his films. He’s 40, without health insurance, has no permanent residence.; very punk rock. Our two characters, Kris and Jeff, are both withdrawn from the families and homes they once had. You don’t really see them interacting with anyone else, but each other.

At the same time, The Sampler, an omnipresent being can psychically see into the lives of those infected with the worms through the pigs in his farm. He seems like a bit of a loner as well. I’m not entirely sure if he’s being a voyeur to get inspiration for his sound music, or if he’s merely observing his subjects because he can. However, his recordings (Quinoa Valley Recordings) are made from aleatory noise fragments he gathers in nature. The soundtrack in Upstream is much like this, understated tones and pulses that are intuitively felt and emotionally based. I found myself almost crying in certain scenes before anything actually happened, and sure enough, seconds later an emotional scene was presented to me. I found that both spooky and ingenious.

This is the thing that I saw as the meat of the movie. Thoreau assembled a life out of nothing as a sort of Übermensch from the rest of the world. The Sampler in Upstream is apart from everything, but builds his craft out of the lives of others and the sounds of the world around him. Carruth has constructed a world around these characters and like a Sim City god has made them assemble their own story utilizing the only thing they know: each other, passages from Walden, and what they can gather of The Sampler. The whole movie subsists on circular connections, hinting at natures connections while chronicling human’s struggle for individual free will.

Identity and individuality are a central theme in Upstream. In wikipedia’s entry on Carl Jung regarding the anima and animus:

“Jung identified the anima as being the unconscious feminine component of men and the animus as the unconscious masculine component in women. However, this is rarely taken as a literal definition: many modern day Jungian practitioners believe that every person has both an anima and an animus. Jung stated that the anima and animus act as guides to the unconscious unified Self, and that forming an awareness and a connection with the anima or animus is one of the most difficult and rewarding steps in psychological growth. Jung reported that he identified his anima as she spoke to him, as an inner voice, unexpectedly one day.

Often, when people ignore the anima or animus complexes, the anima or animus vies for attention by projecting itself on others.”

As the movie progresses we come to see Kris and Jeff become almost one person. Barbara McManus states: “a peer figure of the opposite sex to the ego-bearer to whom he/she has a strong and compelling tie or bond (often a lover, brother/sister, soul-mate).

Before the worms, Kris and Jeff were successful and career driven people. After the worms, they are only able to function as semblances of themselves. It’s as if they lost their souls. Kris gets a job in a print shop while Jeff works as an under the table executive for hotels. It’s only when they find each other that they manage to function beyond the archetypal tools they use to navigate the world, thus manifesting as the anima and animus of one person. Delving in deeper, their mutual experiences with The Thief can be seen as a trauma while the worms are a repression of that trauma. The Sampler plays the role of the invisible psychoanalyst, someone who observes and tries to comprehend the motivations behind their use of schema. Of course, I’m pulling this all out of a fascination of Carl Jung, but it’s an interesting phenomena I noted in Upstream. I would go further and add the Jungian term of synchronicity due to the theme of interconnectedness and relationships, but seeing as Carruth has stopped short of slightly short of the explaining the film in fantastical terms, it suits this analysis to stay in the world of the scientific, for:

“Even the man who has succeeded in freeing himself from the dogma of the identity of the conscious self and the psyche, thus admitting the possible existence of psychic processes outside the conscious, is not justified in disputing or maintaining psychic possiblities in the unconscious.” – Carl Jung, Theory of Psychoanalysis, page 57. 

Upstream Color is not as complex of a puzzle as Primer was, but it is one that can be discovered in many ways. Carruth has been good at divulging as much as he can in interviews on the analysis of it. But it’s the mark of a good story when I can watch repeated viewings of a movie and still say to myself, “That was quite the trip.” I was curious, but didn’t find it necessary to delve deeper into a hidden meaning in the images of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a good amount of time looking for little clues in it, but my joy in watching it is with the general feelings elicited when I watch it. It has an amazing minimalist score and the film itself has an art house feel to it that I’m prone to love. It is a clear story with a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s a film watching journey that takes you through visions, images, and the coping mechanisms/schema we all must face when trying to rebuild our lives/identity/selves anew.

“You can force a story’s shape, but the color will always bloom upstream,” says the poster tagline above. I found these two quotes telling in my research:

Shane Carruth on Primer: “I think if I was part of the filmmaking community, I would have bought into the idea that, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re all trying, but you’ve gotta pitch; you’ve gotta raise money; you’ve gotta hire a DP; you’ve gotta do all this stuff.’ I think the sheer fact that I was so naive and didn’t know any of that stuff is what made me decide to just go do it.”

You have to wonder if Carruth’s story development took different turns or ran away from him at times, then in the end he had to just let it go on its own. I can imagine that it’s a rather instinctive way to film from outside of the giant Hollywood machine. The whole do it yourself aesthetic requires a lot of commitment and dedication to an idea. It’s a process and a film that tells you to go with your gut.  Kris and Jeff must act right from the gut and when they do, it’s not really a finale either. What really happens to Kris and Jeff in the end? Do they truly know who they are? Are they happy together? Do they transcend their trauma?  I like to think that no matter what they go through that they have tools now to get on with their lives. I think of the last paragraph in Walden:
It’s all entirely open to interpretation which is given to the free will of Carruth’s audiences. I admire a film that treats its audience as its equal.

* Shane Carruth Will Have Another, Zach Baron, Grantland: (this is probably my favorite article so far on the movie)

* The Thoreau Poison, Caleb Crain, (this one really delves into the Thoreau component)

* Walden by Henry David Thoreau:

* Walden’s Last Paragraph:

* Citizen Kane, wikipedia:

* Anima and Animus, Barbara McManus:

* Theory of Psychoanalysis by Carl Jung, “The Unconscious,” page 57, 2012:

* Shane Carruth Unravels The Meaning In Upstream Color by Landon Palmer:


P.S. I’m not the only one that has seen the connections between Upstream Color and La Jetée. Alex Sayf Cummings also mentions it in his review here:

Also, take a look at this (a La Jetée trailer set to the trailer soundtrack of Upstream Color. – It totally blew my mind.).:

You can buy La Jetée  here:


  1. I think there’s an error (in this and other Upstream Color’s analysis on the internet): Jeff is “mesmerized” by the Thief AFTER he met Kris. We see that in the middle of the movie, when he plays with blue spheres talking with a client or whoever he is, and he makes chains with straws (these two are mechanical actions induced by the hypnosis); he finally has the symbolic vision with the faucet and then he returns to Kris, and she says he disappeared for a while. Then and only then we saw Jeff’s pig and those two pigs together.
    Jeff and Kris did not come one into other because their pigs were meeting: it’s the opposite!

    1. Not only that, but he lost his job and took on this menial job (where he exhibited those symptoms – the paper chains and straws were something they’d both been doing for a while before they met each other. His symptoms were only shown after they met to indicate/reveal that they had had similar abductions/weird experience), way before he met her so he was abducted before meeting her.

      1. Ok, maybe if I think again about some scenes, there’s nothing sure about the order of the “abductions”… But I’m start wondering if Carruth make it this way in order to not make understandable if Jeff met the Thief before Kris or after. It’s important, because if it’s not so clear this detail, we cannot definitely say if the pigs affected Jeff/Kris relationship or their casual meeting on the train made the pigs couple.
        This ambiguity really looks like Carruth-style! 😉

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