Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color’: viral hacking, body horror and pigs… lots of ‘em

Imagine Terrence Malick directing from a script written by David Cronenberg. That sort of approximates “Primer” director Shane Carruth’s latest film “Upstream Color”, a film that variously examines viral programming, parasitic existence, parasitic love, body horror, pigs (lots of ‘em), altered states of mind, paranoia and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. It is, as Carruth says, his “worm-pig-orchid cycle”.

Right. Let’s attempt to unwrap the film.

“Upstream Color” is at once entrancing and very occasionally sublime, but just as often frustrating in its borderline contrived moments; as though Carruth himself didn’t exactly know what he had made. Ultimately, this functions as the film’s strength not its weakness. It is a text that doesn’t offer up easy answers, functioning instead like a David Lynch film in which surreal, impressionistic events unfold that can generate manifold interpretations.

(Spoiler Alert)


To the viewer, Carruth might seem to be offering up a key in the form of Hendry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, since the book’s words take center stage twice in the film—once at the beginning and again near the end. Do not get lost searching for Carruth’s hidden code in “Walden”, though—it is a red herring. Apart from the characters Kris and Jeff’s isolated lives (no friends, no family), and fixation on sounds, this isn’t a cinematic application of “Walden” in the same way that “Apocalypse Now” reinterprets Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

Thoreau’s book is used—along with a drug derived from a worm, which is itself derived from dead pigs teaming with the selfsame worms—by the character “Thief” to program the mind of Kris, the film’s main character. Got all that? Good.

Our introduction to the Thief and his worms occurs in the film’s first scene. We see two teenagers drink the Thief’s mind-altering worm liquor, and then demonstrate in two ways an interconnectedness with one another, or something approaching telepathy. (This shared existence is later mirrored in Kris and Jeff’s confusion over their seemingly identical personal experiences.) The opening scene with the boys, the Thief and worms seems almost triumphant, as though the psychotropic substance will be a transcendent experience in “Upstream Color”. This is not to be. Events will get increasingly darker and more paranoid.

After drugging Kris one rainy night with said mind-altering worm, Thief proceeds to force a very suggestive Kris into fulfilling various tasks, one of which includes memorizing the first pages of “Walden”. Thief functions as a con man, pilfering Kris’s savings, though there is no art to the con because he has the power of psychotropic worms. After Kris comes back to reality, she finds that she cannot bear children (the suggestion of rape by Thief?), and that she’s lost her job and probably her sanity as well. When she meets Jeff (another Thief victim) on her daily train commute, she shows him her medication, suggesting that she’s been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder or some other mental condition.


Kris and Jeff manage to create a shared existence. Their past experiences inform everything they do, gradually creating conditions that make it just as difficult to be with one another, though they seem unable to separate. Like the two boys in the beginning, they are linked through the experience with the Thief and his worm substance.

Toward the end of the film, Kris begins remembering “Walden’s” text in her relaxing, meditative pool sessions. When Jeff visits Kris at her swimming pool, he writes down the lines from “Walden” that Kris speaks as though he is remembering them, too. Kris later looks at the notes and discovers the words she’s been randomly spewing out like a corrupted computer are actually Thoreau’s. She then sets about buying several copies and distributing them to various other Thief victims. How she finds them remains unknown to the viewer, though she may have tracked them down through the Sampler, who has a sort of supernatural connection to the Thief’s victims.

We the viewer, guided by Carruth, might think that Kris and Jeff are unwrapping some grand meaning from the pages of “Walden”, but there isn’t much to be deciphered. Kris is merely recalling the Thief’s programming. The two characters give the memory of the text some sort of existential import. This isn’t that surprising given the human tendency to program words with meaning (see: all religion or even politics). These words with their attendant meanings remain with us throughout our lives and inform our conscious and subconscious actions.


If there is any on-screen analogue to Thoreau’s “Walden”, it is Sampler, a man who lives in the country on a farm (full of pigs, yes), spending his idle time recording the sounds of nature and observing other people as though he were an angelic specter. Carruth’s preoccupation with sound, in fact, calls to mind the great Russian cinematic poet Andrei Tarkosvksy, who would fixate on dripping water or wind instead of polluting a scene with rapid-fire dialogue. But Sampler’s motives are ultimately unclear. He is morally ambiguous, as opposed to the Thief, but this does not stop Kris from killing Sampler as the causal agent of all her problems.

If I’m forced to interpret “Upstream Color” in its totality, I would say that it is not so much a film about parasitism, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir suggests, but a film of life’s various viral mechanisms playing out in biological life cycles. I can’t help but reference Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” here when thinking of “Upstream Color”. Carruth’s film, like Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, examines the various types of viral agents operating at the invisible or unseen level.

Everything is hacked in “Upstream Color” in an eternal recurrence arrangement of sorts. The Thief hacks the worm’s inner chemical composition to create a drug, which allows him to hack Kris and Jeff (and others), who are then hacked again by invasive, parasitic worms, which Sampler migrates over into pigs with a medieval-looking machine, thereby corrupting their systems, then tossing them alive into a stream in which the pigs eventually decompose (beautifully, I might ad), releasing liquid blue clouds that hack orchids growing on a tree, turning them from white to blue, which are then harvested by florists, and later bought by Thief, thereby perpetuating the cycle.

What’s interesting is that while the worms eventually leave the bodies of Thief’s victims, a far more virulent and longer-lasting worm remains in the form of his programming, forever altering and corrupting Kris and Jeff’s consciousness. (The parallels with William S. Burroughs theory of words being a virus should also be a consideration.) And Carruth himself seems to be suggesting that unseen forces are forever hacking us, whether it’s love, paranoia, religion, sounds or colors. We can extend this metaphor anywhere, into the realm of politics, economy or even something as innocuous as a glance shared with a passerby.


And this consciousness programming/reprogramming theme shares a Biblical parallel as well.

Thief notes while programming Kris that (and I am paraphrasing) she cannot see his head because it is made from the same material as stars. It would be too easy to ascribe Devil status to Thief; but, according to Christian theology, the Devil is the fallen angel Lucifer, who was also known as “Morning Star”. A fallen star: the brightest angel in the firmament. And as in the Garden of Eden, in which Eve and Adam have their consciousness altered by the Devil disguised as a serpent, so too do Kris and Jeff (and others) find their consciousness altered to a near schizophrenic, non-rational state. And when Kris shoots the somewhat omniscient and angelic Sampler, does it not seem as though a human being is killing God as payback for existential troubles?

But, again, to get caught up in a search for religious metaphor, like finding a key in “Walden”, is not the ultimate point. As Carruth himself noted in an interview with The Playlist: “[I]t’s meant to be more universal than a religious or [other] belief system, it should encompass pharmaceuticals or someone with a belief system about fate or cosmic whatever or even political belief systems or anything that informs you of things that aren’t your fault that you’re being affected by.”


This variability is, again, “Upstream Color’s” strength. The film’s confusion is our own. Our minute-by-minute thoughts and processing of sensory input shape us in unseen ways, and we are always searching for the causal agents behind our problems.

What Carruth managed to do is replicate it all onscreen in a visible and magnified way. “Upstream Color” isn’t a perfect film, but like “Primer” it makes the viewer think. And in this hyperreal age of constant bombardment of cultural detritus, that is a very special treat.