The closest analogy I have to watching Shane Carruth's movies is reading one of Haruki Murakami's densely imagined contemporary fantasies. Every detail is concrete, rendered with precision and sensible in the instant: It's only much later that you realize what a bizarre, unsettling place that trail of breadcrumbs led. In Primer, Carruth's shockingly accomplished 2004 debut, it was a world altered (ethically, emotionally, practically) by time travel, even though it looked like a typical business-park industrial district.
What made it distinct and plausible weren't special effects: Carruth couldn't afford them on his famed $7,000 budget. It was the convincing behavior of characters who didn't pause to catch us up in the story or broadcast exposition. Carruth's long-awaited second feature, Upstream Color, is even more assured in its steady accumulation of detail and observation, and even more baffling in terms of where it leads.
Its science-fiction plot is more alien and convoluted than Primer's, involving worms that exert a kind of mind control and a telepathic bond between humans and pigs. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, though, we don't notice how disorienting this environment is until we're immersed in it. What's hallucinatory about the movie isn't its weirdness but its hyper-real clarity from moment to moment. Metaphorically, this process suggests cult indoctrination, a steady brainwashing.
On the first go-round, a viewer sometimes feels as lost as Amy Seimetz's identity-theft victim here, struggling to regain free will by making logical, chronological and narrative sense of incidents that stubbornly resist them. I'm not going to pretend I understand half of what's going on in the links between, say, decomposing swine and spontaneous orchid mutation (possibly the source of the title).
But I'm not yet ready to dismiss what I don't get as the Emperor's New Mystico-Futuro Video Installation, either. With the director serving as his own star, writer, composer, camera operator and co-editor, Carruth's digital filmmaking has a beauty and surgical surety that I enjoy whether there's anything more to his movie or not beyond its meditative surface fascination. Worms are unnecessary; Upstream Color burrows under your skin quite well on its own.