Director Shane Carruth explains the ending of Upstream Color

Did you walk out of the theater scratching your head after watching Upstream Color, the new movie from Primer director Shane Carruth? If so, then Carruth may have some answers for you. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

Really. We mean it. This article is really only intended for people who've seen the movie already. Since it's now out in a bunch of cities, since last Friday, we figure a lot of you have had the chance to check it out. We promised Carruth we would hold this part of the interview until a lot of people had seen the movie, so here it is now. (The rest of our exclusive interview with Carruth is here.)

Here's a picture of Shane Carruth in case you decide not to read the spoilery bits until you've actually seen the movie:

Director Shane Carruth explains the ending of Upstream Color


Your movie has a Thoreau motif, and it seems like it's about people going back to nature in a way. I mean, in the end, it seems like they've gone to live on a pig farm.

It is — but it's more about what those pigs are now embodying. I mean, there is a break of the cycle, [because] these people that have been affected by this [organism] are now taking back ownership of the thing that they’re connected to. So in the rules of his film, that’s more or less is transcendence at the end in some form of another, to be able to be in the same place as [the pigs that have the worms inside]… I mean, that’s the thing — so much of the film is nonverbal. That for me to say stuff…

Is this a film about humans becoming a different sort of species, and the next stage of our evolution?

I can tell you what rolls in my mind. I cannot ... I don't believe that narrative works when it's trying to teach a lesson, or speak a factual truth. What it's good for is, an exploration of something that's commonplace and universal — maybe that's where the truth comes from. If you can thoroughly explore some nuance and what's universal about something, then that to me is what narrative is for.

We are also used to narratives coming to an end in some way and having some resolution and conclusion, and exploration isn't always going to have that, and maybe it never does. These endings are sometimes artificial. And so the best that I can hope for is an ending that doesn't preach or teach, but maybe subverts in a way that echoes or provides a coda to the exploration. So that was my hope in this.

We’ve got a story where characters are being affected at a distance [by the organism]. They are having a hard time understanding their own personal narrative because it’s been built wrong, and they are trying to follow through on something that is potentially built wrong.

So the idea that they would find this pig sampler, or this pig-farmer/sampler character, to be the culprit for all of their problems — when, in reality, we of the audience see [that], of the three people continuing this life cycle, the thief is definitely malicious, the orchid harvesters are definitely benign. It’s the sampler who is interesting, but not necessarily doing anything wrong. He is an observer. You can make a case for whether or not he's culpable, in being able to benefit from the observation, but he's certainly not imposing anything. He’s not making anything negative happen.

For Kris and Jeff, or Kris in particular, to find him to be the culprit and seek him out and do him in, to me that really subverts the story. That means [that] she's breaking out of her narrative, and creating a new one — but even that one is false in some way.

And to end the way that it does... the way this film ends is, it does convey that there is some positive, peaceful resolution to her story. And everything about the film — the music, the cinematography, Amy’s performance — all of it are conveying that. But the text of what we're looking at is probably not so positive, or at least not going to stay positive.

By that time, we know that she can’t have children. So whatever it is that she is peaceful with there [in the pig farm] is not going to return the affection she might have for it. It is always going to be that broken state of things, regardless of what that moment is like right then. So that’s the best I can do as far as bringing the exploration to a hopefully satisfying end and leaving something to continue thinking about.