Upstream Color Explained and Review

Last night I watched Upstream Color, the new Shane Carruth movie, for the third time. It is a pretty difficult and abstract film.

I’m not sure when I’m next going to watch it. I want to record some half-formed ideas I have about it, so I can refresh my memory in the future if I watch it again.

upstream color explained

At the most basic level of analysis, one must figure out what is going on.
This, in and of itself, might take more than once through the movie. I won’t talk about that at all.

Then there are some pretty easy themes which are just handed to you once you realize what is going on.

For this, I’m referring to the fact that Kris starts in a job that requires her to play certain roles and to lie to people. She was least happy here. Then she moves to a basic entry-level job and becomes a little happier.

But it isn’t until she sheds the societal pretense at the end, and works in and with nature and animals, that she can truly be herself and be happy.

Since this is the primary theme of Thoreau’s Walden, and that book plays such a prominent role in the film, I think this was meant to be an easy theme to pick out.

But there are lots of details that are totally mysterious if we take this to be the main point, so we’ll move on.

My Upstream Color Theory

This is going to sound silly in this general form.

Upstream Color is about having something happen to you which then ties you to something else without your knowledge of being tied to this other thing.

Then you wake up to the fact that you are tied to it and have to cut your ties to this thing in order to become a happy, healthy, independent person.

Let’s use religion and politics as examples even though I don’t think there is enough concrete evidence in the movie to pin it down to one of these two.

When you’re young, something usually happens to you that determines your religion or politics. It could be your parents, or some other family member, or certain groups you fall in with.

While these beliefs are being formed, you are totally unaware of the process going on.

This is like the guy who drugs Kris. He forces something on her without her knowing about it at all. Just like not being able to tell when or how you formed certain religious or political beliefs, Kris doesn’t know what happened to her.

When the worm is removed, it permanently ties her to the pig, and as a consequence, The Sampler.

This detail confused me the first two times through the movie. How do you explain the fact that the person that drugged her is not the one that ultimately gains influence over her?

The lack of motivation was weird.

But under this analogy it makes sense. After the initial indoctrination of certain ideas, you get turned over to other sources, which are able to exploit their influence over you.

In the case of religion, your parents turn you over to clergy, or in politics, it’s biased magazines, talk radio, pundits, etc.

upstream color explained

The Sampler

The Sampler stands in for these sources you get turned over to.

Something that supports this idea is the fact that it is a drug that initiates all this, and, of course, we all know the famous Marx quote:

Religion is the opium of the people.

There is also the phrase “drinking the kool-aid.”

This means that you buy into a certain set of ideas that outsiders find strange. But in the beginning, we literally have kids drinking the kool-aid, and we can watch how the drink causes them to become connected.

We also see how this connection isn’t always bad. It provides support and comfort in times of trouble. I think this is the point of the scene where we see the wife is taken to the hospital.

The Sampler is interfering here to help the guy in his time of trouble. He has influence and maybe the ability to change the memory of how the previous scene played out to bring the guy comfort.

On the other hand, it seems the influence causes a lot of grief, suffering, and meaningless tedium.


  • Jeff keeps making chains of straw wrappers.
  • There is the painful loss of the piglets.
  • Kris and Jeff experience great pain through this, and they don’t even know why.

Of course, the initial transformation was horrifying, causing a complete loss of individual identity and being forced into reinventing their selves without their knowledge.

The Awakening

Kris is awakened to the fact that The Sampler has this influence through two means.

The first is the pivotal scene in the pool. She has Walden memorized, but the key feature seems to be that she transitions from merely repeating the words to actually thinking about them and understanding them.

Here I think that Walden is merely a stand-in for any great art, literature, or philosophy. The way we awaken ourselves to the fact that these biased sources are feeding us lies through knowledge.

We can’t just mindlessly read books and expect to awaken to the truth they contain. We have to contemplate them and think about them seriously as works of art.

This is further supported by the fact that The Sampler’s music is the other piece that causes the awakening. It is again art that allows Kris to see through what is going on.

Although, this time it is produced by the person who has the influence over her. So, maybe this means that we can break free by critically examining our biased sources (e.g. whatever holy book or political propaganda is being used).

Breaking Free

Kris kills the sampler.

Of course, I think this is a metaphor, and you don’t need to literally kill the people exerting the influence. On the other hand, the extremeness seems warranted because it really takes something that essentially amounts to a death (of the ego, of the community you belong to, etc) to fully break free of the grasp and escape the cycle.

The fact that there is this perpetual cycle:

  • A person draws you in.
  • A person takes over once you’re in.
  • They use you once you’re in to continue the cycle.
  • And so on.
  • And then the cycle gets broken once the people awaken to the fact that it exists.

My interpretation makes sense of every phase of this cycle.

The parent who has broken free from the cycle of religion will not continue it with their child.

I think another important thing to note is that even though it is a cycle that essentially traps people (i.e. the cycle itself has negative consequences), it seems that none of the members of the cycle even realize they are a part of perpetuating it.

They are just doing what they do, which may or may not be good or bad on its own, but if the point is to break free of a damaging cycle, then at least they are not guilty of intentionally perpetuating it.

Upstream Color Review

Overall, Upstream Color is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend it.

As you can see above, there’s almost endless depth to the film. This is one of those movies that can move you without you understanding why.

Repeat viewings continue to shed light on what’s going on. Everyone will probably come to different interpretations, and that’s something to be celebrated.

From the acting to the music, the cinematography to editing, this film will stand for a long time as a pillar of excellence.

If you liked this article, you might like my explanation of Synecdoche, New York.