If it hasn't already been made clear, enjoying (or even making it all the way through) Upstream Color requires patience and a willingness to forgive some of Carruth's more pretentious noodlings. (You also have to be OK with having a lot of questions left unequivocally unanswered: why is the pig farmer obsessed with making recordings? Why Walden? Aaarrrgghh!) In the tradition of experimental filmmaking, it's a work that's more concerned with evoking emotions than hitting some kind of three-act structure.
Upstream Color has been compared elsewhere to 2011's Tree of Life, in that it uses avant-garde techniques and focuses on one small story to explore Big Themes. A key difference between Carruth and Terrence Malick — whose poised-to-polarize To the Wonder also opens this week; see Dennis Harvey's review in this issue — is that Carruth is operating, as mentioned above, completely outside of Hollywood. No Ben Affleck or studio bucks here; Upstream Color was made fast and on the cheap, stars virtual unknowns, and is being self-distributed by Carruth (who, in addition to starring and directing, is also credited as writer, co-producer, cinematographer, composer, and co-editor).
There was word some years back that Carruth's follow-up to Primer would be an ambitious, medium-budgeted sci-fi epic; it was endorsed by A-listers like Steven Soderbergh. When that fell apart, the story goes, he turned to Upstream Color as his on-my-own-terms rebound project. If that back story influenced his uncompromising (for better and worse) vision for Upstream Color, it's a subtext that makes the end result even more profound; Hollywood would never take a chance on something so risky as this bold effort, which somehow manages to be both maddening and moving at the same time.
UPSTREAM COLOR opens Fri/12 at the Roxie.