[Editor’s Note: Spoilers follow for Upstream Color and To the Wonder].
Lots of films are surprising. That can mean a known actor playing radically against type, a Shyamalan-esque twist ending, or the brazenly explicit use of sex and violence. The films of Shane Carruth are surprising in a way all their own. In Upstream Color, Carruth shuttles the viewer into his headspace – moody, mysterious, and just slightly askew – with no friendly tour guide to greet them on arrival. His confidence is palpable, that he’s provided just enough signposts that we might guide ourselves through his film’s complex, labyrinthine design. In other words, “what the hell is going on?” is a reasonable response, but one that’s endlessly intriguing to fully realize.
A film that doesn’t lend well to synopsis, Upstream follows Jeff and Kris (Carruth and Amy Seimetz), drawn together by unidentifiable forces. Their connection is entwined with a farm-full of piglets, a sound-recorder, an inventive thief, and hordes of mind-altering maggots. The conception seems convoluted, but the film proceeds with such certainty that it attains an unexpected dream logic. It’s a powerful act, being able to suggest connectivity from disparate parts, and key to that is the editing done by Carruth and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director, David Lowery. It provides an intuitive, musical rhythm that allows fragmented and nonlinear scenes to flow seamlessly.
To distill the story’s incident, Jeff and Kris are among the victims of a Thief who utilizes a unique breed of debilitating maggots. Carruth’s mode of storytelling works almost identically to the maggots on the Thief’s victims – worming its way into the viewer’s consciousness, somehow affecting both the heart and the brain. And what’s most impressive is how drastically differently Upstream Color operates than Carruth’s dizzying time-travel debut, Primer. Gone is the rapid, Sorkin-like dialoque used to accelerate and intensify scenes of exposition. Perhaps that’s because beneath its unique and elaborate design, this is a fairly straightforward story. Carruth has likened it to a complex life cycle – every individual part has a role, without ever necessarily realizing their effect on those around them.
Beneath the sci-fi-tinged conceit, there’s a huge beating heart. Kris and Jeff don’t have a conventional romance, but their attempt to navigate mental obstacles they don’t fully understand only fuels the sense of longing. Just as Primer overcame certain flatness in performance with its bounty of intrigue and ideas, Upstream Color balances its experimentation with that humanity. Again, the film elicits feeling that you can’t put a finger on. It’s confounding, but thrillingly so.
There was a nine-year gap in between the release of Primer and Upstream Color, an interim that saw Carruth false start on production of an elaborate effects-heavy film that never reached fruition (though a brief snippet makes a cameo early on in Upstream). He makes quite a memorable comeback, positioning himself as a visionary to keep tabs on with every new release.
Oddly not on the list of this year’s long-anticipated comebacks was Terrance Malick, whose two-year gap since putting out his masterpiece, The Tree of Life, is the shortest of his career. Could it be that in his old age Malick has resolved to releasing his sketches? That’s ultimately what To the Wonder feels like, a rough draft from a master – brilliant in flourishes but incomplete and ultimately slight. Having gotten more abstract with each progressive film, Malick has finally reached a breaking point, where a depletion of character undermines his experiments in form and style.
The plot, as it is, follows an unnamed American (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a European woman (Olga Kurylenko), and brings her back to the States. From thereon, their relationship shifts, Rachel McAdams enters the fray as an old connection of Affleck’s, and Javier Bardem mucks around as a forlorn priest. There’s almost no dialogue, but there is everything else you expect from a Malick picture – whispered strains of poetic voiceover, and lots of twirling in fields during magic hour. Unlike The Tree of Life, which boasted a near perfect balance of suggested structure amid all the chaotic edits, To the Wonder feels vaguely formless. Similarly, while Brad Pitt’s performance went a long way toward anchoring that film, we’re never given enough about any of these characters for their desires to hold weight.
It’s possible that Malick has simply created his ode to tenuousness, a symphonic piece meant to highlight how fleeting our passions and impulses can prove to the sands of time. With that reading, Affleck’s drifting protagonist and Kurylenko’s flighty foreigner come closer into focus, but don’t become anymore compelling. The impact the film does have is in its cinematography, editing, and sound, which alone deem it worth watching. Had this film followed directly after 2005’s The New World, it would’ve likely thrilled in its exciting and unconventional style. Instead, (especially amid information that some leftover footage from Tree of Life was recycled for the film), Wonder feels like a B-side.
At their best, Malick’s films conjure a beauty that’s powerful due to its purity. His fascination with nature pervades each of his films, and it’s not coincidental that they’ve all been set in the past – as our civilizations have been built, industrialized, and developed, mankind has in a sense alienated itself from the natural world. In Wonder, Malick begins to integrate his nature predilection into a modern landscape. Affleck’s character works for some kind of environmental agency investigating water contamination. Shots of natural lakes are joined by a macro look at water cascading through a drainage pipe, an image that’s just perfect in terms of wedding Malick’s vision to the present day.
Instead of these half measures, it would be engrossing to see Malick tackle a wholly urban landscape. The film is most startling and effective in those everyday moments seen through his gaze at locations far from natural – fluorescent K-Mart aisles, a Sonic drive-thru, gridded power lines – as they represent the most immediate departure from his prior work. For such a film pioneer, it’s unsettling to see him cease to push the envelope. But even with this, his worst film, the diminished returns are still worth enjoying.
As Malick acolytes, Carruth included, continue to emerge, it’s impossible to downplay the impact of the aging master. He’s set a precedent of unflinching exploration, encouraging subversion of the tired norm. Because of his example, just when it seems every idea has been exhausted, there’s a visionary around the corner ready to surprise us once again.