Scenes in Shane Carruth films cut at the exact point where other films would start explaining things. On one hand, it's admirable that he trusts the viewers to be able to suss out what happens in between those gaps. There are certainly a number of people who loved his first film, Primer, and some even expended effort creating a detailed map of the timeline of events in it. Yet what he doesn't understand is that this excessive cutting not only shaves off the explanation to his puzzles masquerading as film, it also leaves character motivation and interesting interactions by the wayside as well. As a result, Primer was an ambitiously uncompelling mess, filled with clipped or repeated dialogue, characters and plot delivered in foggy fragments, and rolling sequences of quick cuts meant to progress the "story" along. The film's biggest acolytes insist that it starts to make sense after a few viewings, but if you need to watch a movie multiple times before getting some semblance of what's going on, then that's just bad storytelling. Plus, solving the puzzle doesn't automatically make it a good movie, and it doesn't make Primer any less sterile.
If there's one thing to say about Upstream Color, Carruth's latest film, is that it has more to offer than just a puzzle. As opposed to Primer, whose low budget resulted in a visually uninteresting film, Upstream Color is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with scenes that will twist your insides, even if you can't put your finger on why they hold so much power. There were moments in the beginning where I thought it might end up being a contender for my favorite film of the year, simply because of how much feeling it could wring out of a body writhing on a bed or a deep, discordant sound. But for every moment of simple beauty, Carruth has even more instances where he falls back into his frustrating habits. Underneath the surface, a mediation on cyclicality and the interconnection between humans can be found, but it gets muddied by all of the bloat and thumb twiddling. It's hard to get invested in the visual beauty on display when the personal beauty is so nonexistent. The entire emotional core is hinged upon the relationship between the two protagonists, which is established mostly in moments that we don't see between the cuts and built on generic fragments of conversation. Naturally, the film works best when it's wordless and just presents a series of shots to get caught up in. Once the purely functional dialogue kicks in, all of the tension is lost. I waited for everything to cohere and provide a cathartic ending, but the whole thing just sort of flops to the finish line.
There are many critics and Carruth fans who have hailed Upstream Color as 2013's masterpiece. What's worse is that this is the kind of film where any criticism is scoffed at and tossed aside with a "you just don't get it, man." I'm not inherently against films that favor visuals and mood over story. I love Holy Motors and The Tree of Life. Spring Breakers is currently my favorite film of the year! This one was just filled with a bunch of arthouse cliches (shots of hands softly touching things, flowers out of focus, characters extensively quoting Thoreau) and is only slightly more filling than Primer. Upstream Color presents the viewer with a bunch of scenes and threads and implores you to construct whatever meaning and resonance you want from it. If you're able to find something within it that lands with you, then that's fine, but personally I could do without Shane Carruth's brand of filmmaking, where he thinks mystery and complexity is enough to mask a bland and antiseptic experience.