The hostile courtship of Kris and Jeff
Other than the few shots of him running at the beginning, Shane Carruth finally introduces Jeff around 28:30, which seems an almost Colonel Kurtz-ian time to bring in a major character. But whereas Kurtz was heavily foreshadowed, we know nothing about Jeff. (And at the end of the film, we still know almost nothing of him.)
We know some time has passed: Part 2 Kris's hair is shorter and everyone is dressed in winter coats when Jeff boards the train. He makes his way through the cars and positions himself overlooking a sleeping Kris, her ears buried in headphones, walling herself off from the outside world.
She suddenly awakens and immediately spots Jeff, who holds his gaze for a second and then averts his eyes. Kris then returns to her rest.
There's a brief shot of the pig pen gates that makes a graphic match to the near-empty train. This is the first major suggestion that the pigs and Kris and Jeff are linked.
Back on the train, Jeff looks like he's weighing a decision. The next shot cuts to a closeup of Kris looking disinterested, her eyes a bit glassy (like any good commuter).
Like many other parts of the film, time bends around itself in a brief montage of Jeff looking at Kris and Kris mostly looking out the window. Several days - or longer - pass, since both are wearing different outfits in different shots.
Jeff stands at the head of the car with his gaze fixed on Kris. He's about to make his move.
Jeff asks Kris out for coffee at one of the train stops. They sit outside and Kris describes her "new" job working at a sign printing store. This is the beginning of what I call the "hostile courtship." There is no meet-cute in Upstream Color, and the actions of the eventual Kris-Jeff couple are incredibly strained. Kris seems completely disinterested while Jeff seems rather rude. It's like he's forgotten to read basic social cues and either ignores or misinterprets Kris's indifference. Still, he rather aggressively pursue her. There's also the simplest explanation: both have been massively traumatized by The Thief and are too afraid to let someone else into their lives.
"Never in a million years would I need signage," Jeff says rather coldly when Kris offers her business card. [Right click and view the screencap full size to see the huge disparity in their facial reactions; Jeff jokes about not needing "signage" and Kris looks terrified that he's interested in more.] Jeff simply confirms that her name is Kris and that he has her business phone number. "I'm not gonna call for signage, though," he says, which is just fantastic in its directness.
Kris looks confused and slightly alarmed when Jeff hints at a further connection. It's like she never even considered any other response. "Okay, Kris?" he asks, as though he's already asking her out. "Okay, Jeff," Kris responds, but her words and tones are more guarded.
Jeff returns to the train. Almost as a second thought (or third thought) he says, "It was good meeting you." Jeff disappears onboard. The train starts moving and Kris starts walking. She betrays her own disinterest when she glances furtively at the train as it passes her.
After another cut to black, Kris is back on the train. Her eyes wander, though, as if she's looking for Jeff. At another time - Kris is wearing different clothes - Jeff boards the train and immediately sits across from her. Even when they're in close proximity, the camera often shoots them in singles (or heavily favors one character) to show that, despite their connection, they still have a long way to go.
The hostile courtship continues as Jeff pragmatically lays down an ultimatum for Kris: "I called you. I can't do this every day. It makes me late for work. You're four trains after me. So you're gonna have to answer if I call. I'm gonna call. Again." It's the most sincere sentiment from Jeff even though he's trying to force her hand.
Kris, during the exchange, keeps her headphones on and doesn't make eye contact.
"I was diagnosed about a year ago and I take those and it's fine"
They do manage to meet for lunch, though. They don't engage in the usual sort of smalltalk beyond Jeff describing what he does and where he works. Kris is temporarily occupied with fishing something out of her bag, like she's not even listening.
"Why do you take the train?" Kris asks with a partial sneer. "Everyone who takes the train is either homeless or has had their license revoked." It almost seems a non-sequitur when Jeff responds, "Do you want to see my driver's license?"
Kris abruptly sets down two vials of prescription medication on the table, which makes Jeff so uncomfortable that he quickly hides them with a menu. Kris says, "That is a gift for us." What she says next is one of the most refreshing, honest statements about mental illness that I have ever heard in a film, so I'll quote it in full: "See, there's this path forward where I wait to tell you and you either use it as an excuse or maybe you don't, but I don't know." It's about the overriding perception that anyone who takes mood-stabilizing medication is irreparably damaged, and Kris nails it when she says that Jeff could potentially use it as an "excuse" to terminate the relationship.
"I was diagnosed about a year ago," Kris adds, which clarifies the timeline. The most likely path from Part 1 Kris to Part 2 Kris is that, while attempting to unravel to mystery of what happened with The Thief and The Sampler, she likely went to one or several mental health professionals not long afterward. Thus, it's reasonable to think that a year has passed since her ordeal. She could be on medication for anything from anxiety to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, all separate and interconnected diagnoses depending on the prescribing doctor.
There's the huge importance of whether or not said doctor believed Kris's story of The Thief and The Sampler, if Kris even remembered it at all; Kris could definitely be on antipsychotics if the doctor thought it was a hallucination or psychotic break. In that case, a tremendous burden is on Kris if she's trying to force herself to realize that that entire episode and its negative results was created by her mind.
"And I take those and it's fine," she says. "It seems fine," Jeff absently adds. "I think I saved us about three to four weeks," Kris says, and, again, she's brutally honest regarding both herself and how Jeff potentially reacts. Given that so many adult Americans have been on mood-stabilizing drugs, this portrayal is an accurate reflection of the times rather than setting up the sort of stereotypical quirky bullshit of most movie character with a mental condition.
"All right. Thank you," says Jeff. "I'm gonna get the check and we can... get... out of... here," he begins, trailing off. Jeff uncomfortably scoffs, then says, "I'm sorry. That was stupid. I don't know what I meant to say to that. What do I say to that?" Kris, having returned the medication to her bag, says quite simply, "I don't know."
It's another common response to mental illness. Like Jeff, most people have no clue what to say; I imagine it's quite jarring on a lunch date in which it's only the second time the two have sat down together.
The two look absolutely miserable as they walk down the sidewalk afterward. There's a considerable gap between them, and except for their proximity, they certainly don't seem together. Both are more focused on the ground - or simply hiding their eyes from each other - than engaging in a conversation.
Jeff attempts a peace offering by saying that he'll tell something personal to Kris once they pass a garbage can. He looks at Kris to see if she accepts the oblique apology, but she looks pissed off and still probably embarrassed from earlier.
He begins what I've selfishly labeled The Jack Kentala Theory of Unreliable Jeff. Starting now, I believe almost nothing Jeff says. I'm sure there's some truth to it - especially when explicit details come later - but his words and behavior make most of this seem like a flimsy lie.
On the street, they pass the garbage can and Jeff hesitates before admitting to Kris that he's divorced. It seems like he might've mentioned something more substantial, since divorce is rather garden-variety compared to Kris's disclosure.
Once he finally says it, it's his turn to be brutally honest about the standard first impression of a divorced man. "That's not good, right?" he says. Kris sarcastically says, "It's not great." They keep walking and then Jeff looks away, shakes his head and scoffs. It's not hard to imagine that, an hour prior, he didn't think he'd learn that The Woman On The Train Who He Finds Attractive has some form of mental illness, and even with the commonality of divorce, it's extremely personal to admit it in the way that he does. He spit it out quickly, like he hasn't told many people; if nothing else, he likely doesn't tell people he's only briefly talked to on the train, over coffee, and lunch.
We circle back to an important element of Kris's story: water. There's only a brief shot of her in the pool, but she's soon intercut with Jeff. Both seem to be repeating part of their routines under the control of The Thief. It isn't the exact method of transcribing Walden and making paper rings, though.
Jeff goes to a hotel bar to meet a client, and we're given the first hints that he was also given the "blue" drug. Of note, he takes all the blue M&Ms out of the container on the bar while rattling off financial stuff to his contact. There are several different shots of the container and Jeff removing the blue candy that, visually, we're told to file this as important information.
Kris picks up a rock at the bottom of the pool's deep end and puts it on the edge of the pool deck, though we don't know the full extent of that routine until the end of the film.
At the hotel Jeff grabs a box of drinking straws from the kitchen. In his room, we see him first from behind in a medium shot, absently-mindedly taking a straw, removing the paper, and repeating. Note, however, that on the bottom left of the frame, the unwrapped straws are very carefully stacked and not randomly strewn across the desk.
The true purpose of his activity is slightly masked by this offset reflection. He's constructing a series of paper rings with the wrappings of the straws. This could mean several things. It could indicate that, when The Thief controlled Jeff, the process was more or less the same vis a vis the chains of paper rings. It also hints that maybe Jeff wasn't exposed to Walden since, jumping ahead, he doesn't show nearly the pull toward it as Kris and The Sampled.
However, given that, at the very beginning of the film, The Thief threw away two bags of paper rings, he might have been using that system for a while, especially since that was likely an entire year before Kris and Jeff met. It's actually entirely possible that Jeff was given the drug after Kris, though he seems slightly more well-adjusted. (The behavior of their pig counterparts, though, is something of a wildcard.)
Continue to Part 6.