There's this process which you can perform with nature, providing you know the correct methodology as the select few do. All you need to start with is a particular variety of flowering plant and once that is in full bloom you examine the soil it is grown in, whereupon you can extract the maggots from its roots and divide them into two different groups. The living ones are useful to contribute to a certain type of drug, which can be used to place the user in a suggestive state - or to place the user's target in a suggestive state. Such a thing happens to Kris (Amy Seimetz) who worked as an editor until she was rendered practically unconscious by a form of the maggot drug outside a nightclub...
Is this making sense to you? Even those who professed to understand Upstream Color were struggling on the finer points of this, director and general jack of all cinematic trades Shane Carruth's second feature after his baffling yet fearsomely intelligent time travel escapade Primer of almost a decade before. In the meantime he had tried and failed to get to grips with a different film, A Topiary, which remained incomplete at the time this was released though he placed a short, tantalising extract from it as part of something main character Kris is editing. Whether that whetted your appetite for more densely-packed conundrums was a matter of taste, of course.
What you could work out from the plot of Upstream Color, one which remained vague on certain, concrete points but oddly specific on details which would not have made any sense in any other science fiction film, was that it represented some kind of cycle of life played out that Kris has become stuck in: you never had these problems in The Lion King, that was for sure. After being drugged by maggot juice she ends up in a daze, controlled by a thief (Thiago Martins) who forces her into a trauma both emotional and financial and involved her taking more of the maggots into her body which distressingly make her give up her life savings to him and send her crazy trying to extract the worms from out of her skin (she can see them crawling around beneath the surface of her body).
Sounds like the beginning of a David Cronenberg movie, but where he challenged with his concepts, Carruth preferred to challenge with enigma, and the film's biggest enigma arrives in the shape of a man known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who keeps pigs. As he finds Kris in a bad way after her ordeal, he performs a curious operation with the help of a piglet which appears to be a mixture of skin grafts, transfusions and organ donation, except now Kris and the pig are inextricably psychically linked and Mr Sampler has another victim. We have to judge whether he has actually done her any good or whether he has enslaved her to his will, leaving her no better than one of the swine in the pen in light of how far her free will may or may not have ebbed away.
At this point, her job gone and all adrift after the living nightmare, Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth) who seems to wish to help her out too, only he is far less powerful than The Sampler and might even be part of the cycle himself, unaware of the bigger picture it is implied most of us are as we make our way through our days. It is only when Kris tries to take control that she starts to hope, though not before a sustained bout of paranoia shared with Jeff, except even when she does take drastic action she may have not seen enough of the grand design to ever emancipate herself or her fellow "sampled". If this was an unsettling experience - and with each successive scene the paranoia becomes more tangible, so that it feels futile to try and counter it - then the compensation was Carruth's way with a truly enchanting image, a series of dreamlike, occasionally disturbing visuals which went some way to making it compelling, just to see what he came up with next. Upstream Color was not an easy film, but it got under the skin... like a cosmic maggot, perhaps? Moody electro-music by Carruth.