Monday, November 28, 2016

A Shot-By-Shot Analysis of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color - Part 3

by Jack Kentala

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

Home invasion

At the house, The Thief goes through Kris's financial documents.

The Thief then takes out his copy of Walden, and the subsequent scenes explain the paper rings and the tedious routine. The routine itself is just busywork and has no direct utility for The Thief other than to keep his targets occupied.

The Walden connection is still a mystery to me. Walden, for those who remember it from high school lit, is actually a very boring book that is only tangentially philosophical. Thoreau spends almost most of the book talking about the price of wood and nails for building his cabin in the woods. As for what's considered the meaning of the book, I can't quite align the symbiotic, sometimes random narrative of Upstream Color with Thoreau's ideals of self-subsistence, self-reflection, and being attuned to nature. The idea of solitude arises in the scene where Kris swims and collects rocks by herself, but Jeff never seems to exhibit similar signs.

The closest connection between the book and the narrative concerns The Sampler and how he makes music from sampling sounds from the natural world. There's also a tenuous link to the end of the film, when The Sampled take control of the pig farm.

One of the first demonstrations of The Thief's powers of persuasion is seen in the image of Kris delicately balanced on one tile in her kitchen. At first she just seems to be standing there, but when The Thief enters he reveals that he's "trapped" her there with the idea that, if she moves off of it, the floor will collapse. He speaks in the sort of flat, bland tone used by hypnotists. Seeing a few toes poke out from her torn leggings - ripped from being dragged through the parking lot - adds to the vulnerability of her position.

The Thief seems rather unassuming, but he wields almost limitless influence. Consider again that Kris drove him to her house and allowed him to go through her documents without a struggle.

The Thief returns and catches Kris about to nod off. He commands her to stay awake, and he says, "You feel refreshed," which is a magic phrase he uses many times to instantly revitalize her. The first thing The Thief says that demonstrates his power is when he says that all Kris's food has been poisoned. Told to get a pitcher of water, Kris doesn't move until The Thief reassures her that the ground will hold her weight. Kris clearly sees The Thief walking on the floor, but she doesn't dare move lest she's instructed.

In Kris's living room, she sits across from The Thief who, to disguise his identity, claims his head is "made from the same material as the sun." He also claims that this has always been that way, suggesting that he can induce a sort of retrograde amnesia, since Kris likely had a few glimpses of his face earlier.

Repetition, one of the film's main themes, is introduced here. Once The Thief tells Kris of his facial "disfigurement," there are three medium close-ups that pan across Kris's face. We're in her mind because a brightening light appears from the approximate position of The Thief. What's interesting is that these three shots are essentially identical and overlap the action, which happens many times in the film as both an editing technique and a thematic element. (It reaches a fever pitch in the "They could be starlings" sequence later.)

Starting here, many of the shots of The Thief have him out of focus in the background, and his head is replaced by a bright light that has no detail. The Thief then explains that the water in the pitcher is "somehow special" and tastes better than anything Kris has ever tasted. He tells Kris to take a drink, and she fills up the glass to a line drawn on it that is - of course - blue.

(This specific shot is extremely important, since it bridges two disparate plotlines - The Thief's story and The Sampler's - that have no other physical connection. More on that soon.)

As Kris gulps down the magic water, The Thief continues to lay out the ground rules to further control Kris. He says, "There are two approaching armies: hunger and fatigue, but a great wall keeps them at bay. The wall extends to the sky and will stay up until I say otherwise." He has positioned himself as provider and protector. It doesn't matter that the exact words he says are utter nonsense. (Many hypnosis scripts actually do use a level of surreal abstraction instead of literal meaning.)

Dimly lit in greasy yellow light, Kris is a far cry from her professional look seen earlier. Her hair is stringy and wet from the rain, and as she drinks, she closes her eyes in partial bliss, like an addict getting a fix.

The water is The Thief's primary method of control. Given that the sequence takes place over a few days, he likely chose water simply so that his Kris won't die. He continues to bait her by saying that she'll constantly want the magic water and that each drink is better than the last. "The next drink must be earned," he says, "and I'm going to tell you how."

Transcription, checkers, and magic water

There's a jump to daylight, and Kris is presumably going through the instructions told to her by The Thief. In the overhead shot, we see a pitcher of water, a copy of Walden, red and white checkers, and a blank piece of paper. Kris transcribes Walden by hand.

Meanwhile, The Thief sleeps in Kris's bed and seems completely at ease. Kris is under his command, tied up with busywork. Given that he's asleep and Kris is quite a few pages into Walden, Kris has likely been up all night. We never see her sleep during her time with The Thief.

Kris completes a round of work. She finishes the page (page 61!), folds it, glues it to the paper rings, knocks over the checkers, and finally has earned herself a drink. Kris pours the water with exacting precision - not a drop of water comes above the line - and her childlike tendencies while under The Thief's command begin to emerge. She contorts her face into a goofy expression; she sticks her tongue out; her hair is messy like a kid waiting for her mom waiting to comb it. Once she finishes the water, she enjoys a moment of bliss, and then she looks enormously sad when the realization hits of what she has to do for another drink.

Above we see a yellow chair in Kris's house (which really stands out against the red wall and black chairs in the background), and the color yellow has considerable importance later in the film. The color is restricted to Kris - her chair, the yellow orchid she sees underwater in the pool, her yellow scarf when she arrives at the pig farm, and when the farm is repainted yellow - and represents a sort of defiance. It is the "anti-blue"; the specific shade of yellow is almost exactly opposite blue on the color wheel.

The Thief enters the room and announces that the water is no longer magic. He brings with him a brown touchtone phone - continuing the trend of Carruth not using period-specific tech - and tells Kris that her mother has been abducted by "several men" who demand a ransom, making the assumption that Kris's mom is under threat of sexual assault. Kris's response is muted and confused; her first words are a distant "Oh no..." She childishly asks The Thief, with a slight slur in her speech, "Do you have any money?"

The Thief asks the question back at Kris, to which Kris replies that she owns part of the house. When asked of the equity, Kris strangely replies, "$36,000. Is that enough?... In coins?"

The Thief watches as Kris retrieves the coins under a removable floorboard. Said coins are conveniently right next to Chekhov's gun in a weatherproof bag. The film also switches back to The Thief's point of view, since his face in closeup is clear and not seen by Kris as a bright light. The Thief inspects the coins in the foreground, and in the background Kris uses the toilet, unashamed of The Thief's presence.

The score returns as The Thief manipulates Kris into draining her bank accounts. The extent of the "blue" from the worm continues to peel back Kris's autonomy. The Thief even chooses her clothes on the day (or days) of his scheme. When The Thief has Kris fill out withdrawal slips, he uses different banks and always has the amount less than $5,000. This further suggests familiarity with these sort of tactics, as the amounts are never high enough to raise concerns.


Kris physically drives to her destinations, but The Thief is in total control. He's also at a level of caution where he tells Kris to park a block away so he isn't seen anywhere near the banks and their cameras.

After the first stop, Kris rattles off, verbatim, the entire conversation she had with the bank. This could be one strange effect of the "blue" or part of The Thief's conditioning.

Back at Kris's house, there's a long trail of paper rings on the floor, along with the all the other elements related to the Walden routine. Kris further regresses into a childlike state, stripped down to a single article of clothing - plus socks - and crawling around the floor.

She continues the busywork with the checkers and transcribing Walden. Kris goes back to the water, suggesting that The Thief only temporarily withheld it from her. Again she pours it out like it's extremely precious, and when she drinks it, her expression is serene.

The Thief "feeds" Kris with a bowl of ice cubes. He continues to search the house for valuables. He looks through a stack of paintings that he removed from the walls.

In this screencap, note that there's no painting on the green wall.

Kris suddenly bursts into laughter as she eats ice. She's transfixed by the pattern of sunlight on a painting of a deer. Notice that this is the same green wall that was once bare. It seems that The Thief doesn't want the painting of the deer and rehung it.

The Thief takes Kris out again and adds to his growing amount of cash. Back at the house, he gets ready for his exit. He takes Kris's $38,000 (in coins).

"The wall has crumbled"

When he's finished, he begins to release Kris. The "wall" he mentioned earlier, which he claimed protected Kris from the "armies" of hunger and fatigue has now "crumbled, fallen down." He takes Walden and collects all the paper rings, erasing his presence from the house.

Kris, no longer under the illusion that all her food is poisoned, goes straight for her fridge. She ravenously eats while sitting on the kitchen floor. Kris doesn't seem to be particular about what she eats; she drinks directly from a box of soup broth.

As Kris eats, The Thief leaves, showing no effort to free Kris from the hypnosis of the "blue." Neither even acknowledge the other.

A few shots showing the absolute mess of leftover containers and food on the kitchen floor. Kris sleeps in her bed, wearing her dress, which is stained with food.

The sound design of the quiet house and birds chirping outside switches to the underwater sounds of the worm or worms - it's unclear from the editing if it's more than one, since The Sampler only seems to extract one worm later - that have considerably grown inside Kris. We go inside her body and see the worm(s) tunneling toward the surface of her skin. As the worm moves around, she begins to awaken.

Kris sees a worm under the skin of her right arm and is terrified. She retreats to the kitchen floor, crying, and blood on the tile suggests she has haphazardly tried to remove it. She opens up her dishwasher, grabs a butcher knife, steels herself, and stabs herself in the leg.

The next shot shows her unresponsive on the floor. A few shots with different lighting and sound suggest she's been that way for a while; there's a night interior with dogs and crickets in the background, then it's daylight and we hear birds. Her fingers move very slightly, though, so she's still alive.

Continue to Part 4.