It’s hard to remember now—a whopping three years on—but when Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color debuted in 2013, it felt like one of the first legitimate “event” indies in a long time. Its narrative structure (or lack thereof), bold imagery, and hypnotic effect on audiences inspired a wave of think-pieces full of praise, then a second wave of think-pieces decrying it as overhyped nonsense, followed by even more pieces standing up, taking the anti-anti-praise position. All of this for a film with an infinitesimally small $50,000 budget.
Of course, now the film has been out for some time, people have watched it and either enjoyed or despised it, and have formed their own interpretations regarding what Upstream Color “means”—a determination that I am loath to apply to nearly any film that opts to be abstract. But even if we want to separate ourselves from determining a definitive, correct meaning of the film, Upstream Color still offers fascinating interpretations on addiction, spirituality, and, for the purposes of this article, relationships.
To make the abstract as simple as possible, the majority of Upstream Color concerns Kris and Jeff, two individuals who are beginning a relationship after each has been exposed to a mysterious, mind-altering organism (without knowing exactly what has happened to them). As their relationship progresses, their personalities begin to converge until they are almost completely overlapping. This leads to a shared paranoia, and, eventually, a confrontation with the force that is still holding them captive in a last attempt at freedom.
But if we remove the supernatural and science-fiction elements from Upstream Color, what we’re left with is a striking portrayal of what it feels like to enter into a serious relationship. Shane Carruth forgoes most of the roses and sunshine that other indies doll their couples up with—especially in the early stages, before the inevitable trouble hits—and instead opts to explore the sort of existential dread that comes from sharing your life with someone.
When you begin to share your life with someone, part of the identity you had before the relationship is erased and melded with your partner’s. You create a new identity both as a unit, the “couple,” and as an individual, the person who is bound by the relationship. The changes are subtle at first, just as we see when Jeff and Kris begin to notice strange things about themselves after meeting one another. The deeper the relationship goes, the more commitments are made, and the more the individual identity becomes absorbed by the coupled identity. There is a brilliant montage in Upstream Color in which we see Kris and Jeff’s relationship growing, augmented by a voice-over in which one of them tells a story about a friend they had when they were younger. As the montage progresses, we hear both voices begin to tell the story, until each is accusing the other of stealing the story that originally belonged to the other. The accusation, of course, goes much deeper than someone borrowing a story: it accuses the other of assuming the first individual’s identity, of taking their life history and making it theirs. It’s a troubling accusation—what are we, of course, if not our memories and our history—but the feeling is completely understandable within the context of both the film and the way it is depicting human relationships. There is a fear of losing one’s self into something conjoined, a sort of symbiotic romance. There is a worry about how much of yourself you really are when you are also partially defined by your connection to another.
These fears lead to the paranoia that Kris and Jeff eventually experience, and yet, it doesn’t drive them away from one another. This is key. They are afraid of what’s coming, but not so afraid as to separate themselves from one another. In a sublime sequence towards the end of the film, the couple barricades themselves inside their bathroom, and holds each other in the bathtub, fully clothed, terrified of everything but each other. In this, we see how that initial fear of lost individual identity transforms into a dependence on the other and the collective identity formed by the couple.
This acceptance and reliance on the couple, then, is what allows Kris and Jeff to confront the malevolent forces that have wronged them in the past, and to try to liberate themselves from the trauma in each of their pasts. In the film, this confrontation becomes both mystical and violent, but in the closing shots, Carruth does suggest that they attain a sense of peace.
This reading of Upstream Color is, of course, a much darker and more anxiety-laden look at relationships, but the dread that Carruth summons up from something that is often thought of as one of the greatest parts of life is shown here in such a unique way that it offers a completely unique alternative to other films dabbling in the same subject matter. Perhaps, by the end, Kris and Jeff do reach that level of coupled bliss. But there is a toll on the individual and their identity when entering a relationship, and rarely is it explored by such an interesting guide as it is in Upstream Color. It is but one small thing to take from a film full of many things—some big, some small. I myself thought for a long time that the movie was about meeting and killing God; with each subsequent viewing, that interpretation has changed, but I wouldn’t dare call myself misguided for believing it at first, nor would I declare anyone else “wrong” for disagreeing with it. Upstream Color is a movie that rewards individual interpretation and repeated viewings, as peaceful as an act of deep meditation, but as rich as any great work of art.