Upstream Color is all muscular ideas and artful craft. For his second movie, Shane Carruth sidesteps the tendency to expound through dialogue: how the cyclical, parasitic worms around which the story revolves, and the syndicate which profits off it, operate is left entirely to visual cues. The movie unfolds showing Kris (Amy Seimetz) infected with one of the creatures by a lanky pusher (simply named “Thief”), her worm transplanted into a pig by a farmer (Andrew Sensenig), from there passing to orchids which are harvested by the thief’s associates to manufacture mind control drugs. A hive-mind side effect between various hosts is communicated with match cuts–mainly hands touching objects. Even more interesting is how Carruth’s trim approach uses what isn’t said to inform the world his characters live in. After her infection, Kris awakens from a hypnotic state to discover her savings stolen. With barely any clothes on, she experiences sexual shame, refusing to call police or tell anyone what happened. This is only exasperated when her boss fires her for the lengthy absence, unconcerned with her whereabouts. Despite her sleepwalking nature during the infection, banks accept her coerced financial self-destruction at face value. Accountability and social safety nets seem non-existent.
Though miles apart tonally, Upstream Color shares with Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop a sustained look into dehumanization. While able to function again in society, even start a romance with fellow victim Jeff (Carruth), Kris is diminished–even discovering she’s become infertile. Kris and Jeff both suffer bouts of telepathy-induced source amnesia (mixing up their childhoods) and sudden emotional duress (feeling what happens to the pigs carrying their parasites). As the film progresses, Carruth shows similar effects on other victims. Exploited and hollowed out like Peter Weller’s metal encased superhero, they are disregarded by society. Each struggles, hoping to reclaim a sense of identity (a wife who keeps looping the same phrases to her husband). It is implied the farmer at the center of this operation had also been infected: standing amongst the pigs, he experiences and observes the lives of his victims through psychic connection. Not malevolent like the thief, but also feeling no accountability for profiting from misery, he has dealt with his victimhood by becoming apex parasite. Kris herself goes through confusion, depression, anger, and finally compassion for the others to combat her trauma, yet her loss is permanent. Breaking this systemic, self-fulfilling abuse doesn’t undo its hurts or make her whole, simply offers the briefest of comforts. Perhaps that’s enough.