Upstream Color explained

Upstream Color Explained … Maybe

By Jason Boyd


Upstream Color explainedLike Primer before it, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color leaves many people confused. Maybe more than they need to be.

Keep in mind that art can be subjective, and it’s hard to always diagnose exactly what an artist intends, especially if they intentionally leave it open for interpretation. But I believe Carruth’s latest, while complex and demanding, is clearer than many give it credit for. The problem for the viewer is that the film makes a point of not making a point about things. It rewards those who watch movies like they read books for class, but it can leave some bewildered.

By no means can I claim 100% accuracy in my analysis, but allow me to explain this movie the way I saw it. In this movie, similar to films like Mulholland Drive, even the plot can be unclear at times (though the aforementioned was even more divergent), so forgive me. Post in the comments below if you disagree or think I misread something so we can start a conversation.

OBVIOUS WARNING: Upstream Color Spoilers Inbound

The movie opens with a series of scenes depicting a character credited as “Thief” (Thiago Martins) — we never learn his name — cultivating orchids riddled with worms, gathering those worms, and staring awkwardly at some boys testing a worm out by essentially steeping it in water. Maybe I missed a spoken statement of their relation, but I got the sense that Thief was related to one of the boys.

Now, after the kidnapping section, I toyed with the belief that Thief was testing this out on the kids. But you’ll notice that at the start he was throwing away bags of what looked like paper strips, sort of like what he had Kris (Amy Seimetz) make when he was sleeping from a hard day’s work hypnotizing. And we learn later (I think) that others were kidnapped before Kris. Regardless if Thief was involved with every single one, it’s reasonable to conclude he was involved in more than Kris’s in lieu of the conspicuous paper tossing.

Let’s stay on Thief for a while and question his motivation and backstory. It’s important because Thief is a lead character for the first several minutes and the direct catalyst for the entire movie, yet he doesn’t show up again until the very end. And our last impression of him is brief and non-revelatory, shedding no light on his earlier actions.

The most confusing thing about Thief is that he seems to have three jobs, which I guess is a normal thing nowadays, but they’re all tangentially related. Or are they? It’s unclear.

  1. He works with the orchids — and we see later that others work at this place, and he’s seemingly just an employee — and surreptitiously pockets the worms.
  2. He hustles worm capsules both on the street and in da club, as it were.
  3. And then he kidnaps and hypnotizes at least one woman for profit. To me, this seems like a guy down on his luck. Someone who has several avenues for money, some more legitimate than others. Maybe that’s his place, thematically, in this story. Excuse the following if it reaches too much, but let’s craft a plausible backstory for Thief and see if it fits.

We might assume that he turned to crime early on in order to sustain himself, maybe picking up from family members or friends, but it never really became his career of choice. Later, he does manual labor to try and go straight, but somehow he gets tied up with this weird pig farmer who likes nature sounds. It’s a way to make a buck, and all he asks is Thief use this worm, which he already has access to. In my mind, one of the boys was related to Thief, and he was kind of just passing on the vicious cycle, so to speak — giving them the worm.

Now is a good time to discuss, before we delve further into the plot, the title Upstream Color. It’s hard to find much info on this term, but it’s used in the science community to, in effect, say that even contaminants in early stages of biochemical production will show themselves down the line. I believe one phrase I’ve read is “upstream, the color blooms.” This movie seems to constantly pose questions about why we act the way we do, how much of it is just biological, are we really all connected, etc.

Thief’s relationship with the children could indicate that he had the same relationship with an older male role model in his childhood. That his turning to crime was not just his own choice, but it was influenced by someone else long ago. And now he’s come back to it, and he’s repeating the cycle. His true “color” showed later in his life. Of course, this is a lot of speculation for an (intentionally?) ambiguous character, but his prominence demands attention.

So, Thief kidnaps Kris and a lot of stuff happens. We won’t get into Walden and repetitive chores too much as both will come up again later in different ways. What’s important, plot-wise, is that Thief is just using hypnosis, which is easy when someone’s under the influence of this particular worm. It’s really that simple. It’s a power of suggestion thing, something that this worm seems to enhance. Any readings that Thief’s control over Kris is anything other than biological and subsequently psychological is misguided. If there’s mysticism of any sort in this movie, I don’t believe it’s here.

SIDENOTE: In a seemingly throwaway scene, Kris eats a bowl of cereal (ice water) and laughs at the TV (a painting of a deer, I believe). This scene holds hidden meaning. Kris is hallucinating, but it’s not the kind of hallucination she would have just thought up. Plus, it seems like her every action has only been by command. Now, why is this important? Why is it anything more than obvious? Because of, I believe, the nature of the painting. It’s of a wild animal. But she thinks it’s a machine. Regardless, she is having as much fun staring at it as she would staring at a television. And it’s just because of suggestion and biology. This is a powerful concept, strengthened by much of Kris’s personal story. For instance, we first see her at a computer working on an animation of an animal. She seems to be in video effects of some sort, as a designer/animator or art director. Regardless, that first image of her compared to the last, her holding an animal in her arms, is starkly opposed. In the first, she’s upset. In the second, she’s content. This could indicate some filmmaker-approval of Walden-esque beliefs, but I believe this is meant only to apply to Kris, in that the larger theme is creating your own narrative, for good or bad — something that Walden’s “finding yourself” motif fits well with. More on that later.

After Thief essentially taps Kris dry, he lets her eat and vanishes. It’s a little unclear during a first viewing, but the worm seems to begin wiggling and multiplying when fed. The cutaways, and the fact that she was pumped orally full of worm, seems to indicate the worm is indeed in her stomach, so that makes sense. Thief would want to keep her alive, but not want the worms to go nuts and snap Kris out of the trance. A human will die after two weeks without water but can live up to two months without food. Water can also help stave off hunger pains. Thus solving the mystery of why Kris is made to drink water all of the time.

After a failed attempt to get the worms out, Kris is called by The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), using a variation of worm charming. It may be unbelieveable that sound vibrations could travel all the way to Kris and somehow beckon her simply by beckoning the worm insider of her, but this is not as big a leap of logic as most movies ask you to take, including this one. So, The Sampler does some back-o’-van surgery and transplants the worm into a pig, then, presumably, he dumps Kris in her car in the middle of of a highway median.

Kris loses her job, and the next time we see her she’s working a crappy job compared to what she had, her finances are in ruin, and Jeff (Shane Carruth) keeps running into her.

Let us explore Jeff here for a minute. Knowing what we do at the end of the film, we know that Jeff was abducted and worm-infested as well. But he blames it on a drug bender, which let’s assume he was heading toward regardless, making his mistake more plausible. He has no memory of it, but it fits with the path he was headed on prior to that period. He too lost a lucrative career as a result, and it ruined his life.

The attraction between Jeff and Kris can really be explained several ways, and they all show a unique twist on the “chance encounter” romance. Because each interpretation still ties back into the plot and theme, a brilliant stroke, of which there are many in Upstream Color.

Firstly, from a plot point-of-view, it’s because the worms that were inside these humans are now inside of pigs. OK, so that probably didn’t make sense for a lot of you concrete thinkers, and I hear ya. But Carruth is coming at this in several ways, not just concrete, though the science fiction part is meant to give some reality to it. We know that there are indeed parasites out there who can make animals do irrational things — do a search for zombie origins for a hyped version. So, in the vein of science fiction, Carruth took this idea a different way. These worms also creates a supernatural (or natural, in this world’s logic) bond between its hosts. Primarily an emotional bond, it would seem, as no conscious communication takes place.

Secondly, there’s an element of the wounded seeking the wounded. These two are victims, whether they know it or not. Body language tells a lot about a person, and sometimes the observer doesn’t even know they’re reading someone. They just feel that commonality and want to explore it. Most lovers can tell you of times where the bond they had seemed to exist before ever actually meeting. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes negative. But a bond is a bond, and sometimes it can seem pre-existing. This point could actually be taken one of two ways: as sociological or mystical. And both apply to the movie’s various sub-themes.

Thirdly, because they don’t know why. It seems like a copout, but so much of this movie is about discovering your self and creating a self-narrative that makes you happy. And how we sometimes retrofit things in order to make that happen, which can be good or bad.

This leads into one of the next stages of Kris and Jeff’s relationship, where they seem to be sharing memories. Admittedly, this is one of the more “is this important to the plot?” moments. It does help lead Kris to her psychotic break (Carruth’s words), along with the piglet murder we’ll get into in a second, but for the most part this is a more abstract portion of the film focused on theme and character building.

The most important thing I took away from it was that the two were getting intertwined. When you start making a life together with someone, there’s a tendency to act alike, think alike, etc. It’s groupthink on a small level. Add to this: worm influence. I mean, at this point they have a lot of influences swirling around in their heads. You’ve got the worm itself, which I’d guess leaves a wicked long hangover. You’ve got the Thief, who brainwashed you with Walden and occupational therapy. You’ve got the PTSD, which you don’t remember, of worms under your skin. You’ve got pig thoughts to some degree, like a Warg from Game of Thrones who can’t control his power. And then this Sampler guy is creepily watching you take a leak, whether you know it or not.

Clearly, Kris and Jeff are grasping for identity. Suddenly, these childhood stories become memories, and very precious memories at that. They essentially become codependent even in their memories.

I’ve seen some critics announcing that Upstream Stream is about codependent relationships. That is too micro for me. Each of these characters want to find themselves, to create their own narratives. Kris’s journey is the primary one, and she is truly focused on herself. Jeff, if anything, is the one looking to define himself by another.

Also, for every element of codependency there is also an element of belonging to the same thing, of togetherness. At times, in a cosmic sense. Carruth’s take, however, seems to be more ecological that mystical. The beautiful, carefully composed shots of orchids, among other flora and fauna, would have been at home in a nature documentary. The worm has a cycle, and it ends with the pig, but yet its cycle is a circle that never closes. Again, look to the Lion King to see what I’m getting at here.

SIDENOTE: Upstream Color, in terms of plot structure, reminds me of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is an upper, a bottom, and middle story. This is different than your common A and B story structure, because one of Shakespeare’s modus operandi was to explore the upper level (usually royal or godly) consequence of a theme as well as the commoner’s take (the seedy, so to speak). The main plot was the heart of the matter, however. In this, the upper theme of cycle of life could be said to comment on the core theme of indentity by saying that it’s somewhat of an illusion, that time and nature dictate all under the sun. Or you could say that it’s saying that our place or even existence in the world is our identity, from an objective world view, and that anything we contribute to it is merely petty rationalization. I’m part of the food chain, therefore I am. The lower plot, of Thief and his growing prodigees, is the impoverished turning to crime and thus salting their own roots. Being turned to that is, perhaps, related to the upper theme of cycle of life as well, showing this human parasite as just another part of the food chain.

In a very chicken and the egg kind of way, Pig Kris, if you will, gets pregnant with Pig Jeff’s piglets while human Kris and Jeff couple. The Sampler doesn’t like this. It’s unclear exactly what The Sampler doesn’t approve of. Is it the pigs, the humans, or both?

Let’s talk about The Sampler. His name indicates a few things. One, he’s a musician. A DJ of the trees, as it were. You can see his address/company name as “Quinoa Valley Rec. Co.” Two, he seems to get off on peeking in on these people’s lives. In that same cyclical manner, his peeking in may influence his compositions.

Now, to get to the root, thematically and motivationally speaking, of The Sampler, the telling scene is where he begins to lose it. He’s out taking recordings of nature and then distorting it. That right there told me something, but I may be out on a limb (pun intended). He is controlling nature. He wants to record something natural but then he distorts it to an unintelligible degree in order to fit an already composed piece of music. This may be Carruth inserting himself as a filmmaker into the character. As any artist you have to take real experiences, based in reality, and create a stylized recreation of them. You’re limited by reality, but yet the goal is to obscure reality. It’s a seemingly impossible task, and perhaps the comment, in terms of this character, is being made that it is indeed impossible to ever truly get what you want from pure creativity. The narrative you create may not fit with reality, and reality may not fit into your narrative. It’s a comment on art as much as it is on the human mind.

The Sampler takes this out on the pigs, who are disobeying him along with the trees and everything else. He wants them to be docile, fit into the bigger puzzle that he himself created. But they won’t behave. Again, comparing The Sampler to The Filmmaker, it’s the problem of free will and accounting for that in the art you create. On a strictly thematic level, it seems to be a testament to free will, a small shred amidst so much determinism, that the pigs and humans don’t fit into the scheme.

SIDENOTE: One can ask how The Sampler can see into these people’s lives, but the answers are just as inconceivable as writing it off to artistic license. But theories could be crafted. For instance, The Sampler could have been the initial host. Perhaps he started the cycle, first taking the worm into him, passing it on to a pig, and then sending that pig down the river. In that way, a piece of him is in everyone infected, thus granting him a master key to their thoughts. You could say that perhaps the pigs are acting, however subtly, more like the humans — in a reverse of Jeff and Kris being attracted to one another because their pigs were romantically involved — and The Sampler is simply picking up on their body language. The things we, the audience, see are just an amalgam of what is actually occurring with the humans and what The Sampler picks up on.

The piglets get tossed into the river, worms get out and infect some orchids, and so on, revealing the cycle we saw only one end of. Meanwhile, Kris and Jeff start freaking out. Jeff seems to get fired, and then he randomly attacks two innocent guys.

On a plot basis, this is Jeff acting out from Pig Jeff’s anger and confusion, which he feels but doesn’t know why. Both he and Kris search for the Piglets in pantries, but they don’t know what they’re searching for. On a deeper level, this is a metaphor for biological determinism. In other words, mood swings. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t know why. You’re irritable. Something small makes you way too angry. It could be because of something in your childhood, something in your diet, or just a misfire in the brain.

Determinism of this variety says we’re just meat robots with pre-programming. In this case, it’s actually a real thing in the present that Jeff is reacting to — he just doesn’t know it. And it’s also entirely logical to react that way, to the thing he’s REALLY reacting to. That’s what makes this interesting, because it isn’t, in fact, determinism. In a riddle-inside-a-riddle way, one would chalk it up to that kind of determinism if they didn’t know what was really behind it, an unbelieveable psychic link. So that idea of creating your own narrative, and identity formed from that narrative, is enhanced. Because Jeff will probably never really know what happened, but he has to go off of the evidence — of which there’s little. Even though he discovers the pigs, he doesn’t know about that original piglet batch that was murdered. So he may again chalk his outburst up to an inherent flaw within him, the same way he chalked Thief’s kidnapping up to drug abuse.

Somewhere in this, Kris starts sleepwalking, diving to the bottom of pools, reciting Walden, etc. Carruth has referred to this in interviews as Kris’s psychotic break. In other words, the trauma from losing her unknown children causes her to regress, go into a “fugue” state, and recover some of the hypnotic suggestions — thus proving that she was indeed hypnotized and taken advantage of. It may seem odd, but one could also say that Kris, being connected to the worm still through the pig, is capable of accessing memories that the worm contains from when it overtook her mind, so to speak. Perhaps it is her feeling the worm’s memories, not the pig’s this time, that causes her to dive to the bottom of pools and the like. We see later that the life cycle for these worms begins/ends in water more times than not, and water is a recurring element throughout Upstream Color.

They find the Sampler’s HQ through that murky “who’s memory” is this stuff. Likely, it’s the memories from the pigs. Also, it might harken back to the title of the movie, and another of its many themes. They can diagnose the original sound even though it’s distorted and changed into music, because there is still a remnant of that original. Regardless, we can only assume a plan is hatched because while The Sampler spies on Jeff, Kris pops up and shoots him both in reality and in this shared dream state.

Before we get onto tying up loose ends, let’s explore that climax for a moment here, starting with what actually happened.

We know The Sampler can peer in on people’s lives. So he’s doing that then with Jeff. From following events, we can assume Jeff is indeed psychically in that room. The Sampler is physically on his pig farm. Kris is also on the pig farm, waiting for The Sampler to become immersed in Jeff’s emotions and experience.

In reality, Kris basically just pops out and shoots him as he’s distracted with a pig/Jeff. But she also appears to Jeff, as well as The Sampler as he inhabits Jeff’s space, because she and Jeff are even more intertwined now than The Sampler was to either of them before. Meaning, whatever psychic/astral projection these worms afforded people also extends to Kris and Jeff. It’s a distraction and us seeing Kris shooting in both places is just a bit of movie magic — both times she’s really shooting in her real surroundings, the pig farm. Though it does work as a satisfying expulsion of his influence on her mind.

Everything afterward is really just general wrapping up stuff. Everyone ends up happy. But the real ending of this comes from knowing that Kris never really got justice. She never saw Thief’s face, and so the only person she has to hang her blame on is The Sampler. Thief got off free. But is Kris any less happy? She’s created her own narrative, and part of it is even still connected to her brain washing. Walden preaches finding yourself by experiencing nature and independance, and she seems content as she does so at the end, but cosmic justice has still not been served. And she’s no less happy.

On that note, I don’t believe the Sampler and Thief have to know each other at all, and though the movie is ambiguous enough to leave room for interpretation, a straight analysis of the facts indicates no conscious relationship or partnership at all. They’re just parasites finding other parasites, the worms, and exploiting them to their own end. They’re part of the circle of abuse in the human world the way the worms, the orchid, and the pigs are part of the circle of life.

Shane Carruth has alluded to the fact that Upstream Color is about identity and personal narrative. It addresses the issue of the inexplicable things we feel, and the inexplicable things we choose to blame for those feelings. Sometimes we’re right, other times we’re not, but yet our emotions fall in line when we believe we’ve corrected the problem. Kris couldn’t find something or someone to blame for what happened to her until she met The Sampler. Unfortunately, the Thief, the first-hand culprit, got away unbeknownst to anyone.

Final Thoughts

Upstream Color is not conventional. The best thing about Shane Carruth with this film, as well as Primer, is his bold approach. He doesn’t stop to explain. He doesn’t have his characters asking questions they wouldn’t ask. When you stop and think about it, we have novels if we want tons of omniscient insight into everyone’s heads and motivations. Movies are a shorter investment than a novel, and you can repeat view it again and again if you didn’t understand everything at first. So Carruth’s films may turn off some who don’t care to invest a lot of time, but it pays off for those of us who at least see what he was going for and enjoy the constructed logic of his worlds, even if we ourselves don’t watch it 12 times. In addition to everything gone over here, if you watch it a second time pay close attention to cuts and transitions, where and how one scene ends and another begins. It infers a great deal I didn’t go into here.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. What did you make of Upstream Color?


  • Jason Boyd

    Jason Boyd is a science fiction author, geek enthusiast, and former cubicle owner. When not working on his MA in Creative Writing, he's trying to figure out how magnets work.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x