Earlier this week, a podcast appearance by
director Shane Carruth raised a few eyebrows. Speaking off the cuff on Jesse
Thorn's "Bullseye," Carruth spoke about the kind of superhero films he would be
interested in making if he ever had the chance. As you might expect, his ideas
for the Superman franchise are a tad unorthodox (and
probably unmarketable, for that matter), including a scenario where "people end up dying in the learning process
that they can't rely on their God anymore." As Geoffrey Rush's character from "Shakespeare in Love" put it: "Well, that'll have them rolling in the aisles." Not your typical blockbuster fare.
In many ways, though, Shane Carruth has already
made his superhero origin story. It's called "Upstream Color."
After Kris (Amy Seimetz) is captured (shortly after her character's introduction), we get one particular shot that shows the damage inflicted by her kidnappers, a close-up of her torn sock/tights. It's textbook shorthand for her vulnerable state and the imminent trauma that will guide her actions for the rest of the film. Her footwear may not have been made of unstable molecules or been destroyed by a unbreakable metal only available on the black market, but after her kidnapping, her psyche is similarly damaged. After she escapes from the men who purposely alter her mind and body, Kris doesn't don a leotard, call herself SuperSwina and take on the League of Evil Foley Artists. But she learns how to deal with the changes she's been subjected to and to help other similarly affected individuals.
When we meet our mysterious "Thief," ostensibly one of the masterminds behind the plot that ensnares Kris, he dispenses brain-altering edicts like Ra's al Ghul's hypnotist cousin. But like gamma rays and Liam Neeson's aphorisms before it, the methods intended to create a specific tool for ambiguous purposes end up breeding something new entirely. After being stripped of her financial means and spending much of the rest of the film searching for a reason to trust again, her interspecies tether to the land of pigs ends up stirring something inside her. As every superhero must discover their true purpose, Kris finds hers in protecting the parts of the organic structure she's been linked to, whether it wears a snout or sweater vest.Speaking of which, what superhero movie would be complete without a love interest? Only in this case, the object of our hero's affection isn't solely being used as a pawn by malicious forces to bring him out in the open. Kris' other half Jeff becomes...well, her other half. Multiple viewings may be required to parse out just how much Jeff is cognizant of his role in Kris' evolution. But that shared experience ultimately gives Kris the strength she needs to confront those who ripped her from her past way of life. (It's interesting that Carruth also mentions a potential Bond synopsis in his list of projects that will never, ever get made. Kris' vengeance in the film's final moments is somewhat reminiscent of the end of "Casino Royale.")
One of the complaints leveled against "The Dark Knight Rises" was that it banishes its hero from the main conflict for a significant portion of the running time. But rather than feel like we're being robbed of some greater good that Kris could be out accomplishing, "Upstream Color" is built around that isolation. When Kris and Jeff retreat into the forest, there's no time-sensitive bomb threat or eight-armed biomechanical villain terrorizing a nearby megalopolis. It's two people coming to understand what they've become, not yet knowing that they'll soon be using the knowledge of that identity to help others.
Carruth seems focused on iconography, of
capturing those symbolic images that become culturally significant identifiers.
Just as a costume helps identify the transition between civilian and superhero,
Carruth's use of color helps clue us in to different changes in Kris' road to
understanding. Even the marketing of "Upstream Color" echoes some of the recent
trends among superhero tentpoles. Compare Carruth's poster to a teaser for "Iron Man 3." Both feature central characters, presumably in a moment
of peril. They're in an environment that brings out a significant element of
their psychological makeup. And both lean on the iconic and striking nature of
their single images that there's no need for a title. For a film targeted at a
different market, the interwoven U and C that make up the film's logo would
look right at home on a breastplate or an action figure.
Categorizing "Upstream Color" as a superhero film may sound ridiculous or, at the very least, a stretch considering that we don't see Kris accomplish superhuman feats of daring or topple a burgeoning crime syndicate. And maybe without that sense of spectacle, a superhero movie seems empty or pointless. So for "Upstream Color" to take those same cosmic forces and couch them in a personal story with a narrow focus is, in a way, already fulfilling Carruth's desire to see a different spin on those norms. Not all heroes and heroines are meant to save the world. At least, not until they've fully saved themselves.
You don't need to be a fan fiction writer to see that this story isn't designed to be self-contained. Even if a future film wouldn't follow Kris' destiny to become the world's greatest animal therapist, there are still stories left to be told about the other members of the sparse ensemble. Just focus on the pair of hand-to-hand combat boys from the opening and you've got a story branch that would yield some interesting results. But sequels and spin-offs don't seem to be the Carruth way. And that's why his latest film is the closest to a superhero film that he'll probably get.