Sundance Surprise: Did One of the Best Movies Ever Made Just Debut in Park City?

What's the deal with 'Upstream Color,' the new movie from 'Primer' director Shane Carruth?

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Among all the movies premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there is perhaps just one that is earning equal amounts of raves and head-scratches from audiences. Its creator, Shane Carruth, won the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize with his sci-fi puzzler Primer, and returned to the festival this year with his second-ever movie: Upstream Color. He served as writer, director, producer, co-editor, director of photography, camera man, composer and co-star. Since its premiere screening at the festival on Jan. 21, Upstream Color been drawing both “wow” and “huh” reactions from critics present. To those of us not in Park City, reading descriptions of the viewers’ experiences can make it seem like they were treated to either the best movie-going experience of their lives. Or, on the other hand, the most bewildering hour and a half ever.

Here’s the movie’s official synopsis:

A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.

So now you know what you’re in for.

At the A.V. Club, Sam Adams describes it as “utterly perplexing, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, quite literally overwhelming…having the movie wash over me was one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life.” Katey Rich at Cinema Blend says the movie is “like a music video with a thread of narrative occasionally interrupted by utter weirdness” and that “it’s hard to know exactly why Carruth wanted to make all of this quite so unsettling, to disturb the audience so much in the beginning with this bizarre treatment of our heroine and then never come up with even half a reason why.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy warns potential viewers that people with even slightly conventional tastes should stay away, and Indie Wire‘s Rodrigo Perez compares the feeling of watching it to being “incepted.”

(MORE15 Sundance Movies To Keep An Eye On)

But the biggest trippiness when it comes to Upstream Color may not be something that happens in front of the camera. The distribution plan for the movie is something rare in both Hollywood and the festival scene. Getting a distributor is usually part of the whole point of taking a film to premiere at a festival like Sundance—reading Deadline this week consists largely of reading how much studios have paid for the rights to these movies (for example: Austenland to Sony WorldWide for over $4 million; The Way, Way Back to Fox Searchlight for $10 million, one of the biggest deals ever made at the festival)—but Shane Carruth has already opted out. He announced before the festival began that he’s going to distribute it himself, through his company, erbp.

The director explained his decision, called “a move reflective of the new creative distribution options available to artists,” in a statement:

As a filmmaker you try to make a compelling case for an audience to stick around minute by minute with what is on the screen… By also crafting the marketing we’re still doing that, still storytelling, but we’re trying to make a case for an audience to show up. Hopefully for viewers, framing the film this way and staying true to the film’s intent makes it a bit more of an intimate relationship.

Upstream Color will open on April 5 at the IFC Center in New York City, to be followed by openings in at least 20 cities and a May video-on-demand/download/DVD release. Filmgoers in Berlin will have a chance to see it before then, too, at the February Berlin International Film Festival, where it will have its European premiere—and at which point we can check back in on whether anyone has deciphered what it all means.

(MORETechland Screening Room: Primer – The Physics of Friendship)