In Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013), psychological trauma is symbolized by a worm that literally gets under your skin and grows ever longer. The worms in the film somehow have a psychic connection to each other and allow those who ingest them to have a psychic connection to each other, too. So the film turns out to be about the psychic connection that can happen between those who experience similar kinds of trauma.
Psychic connection can be used for good. At the start of the film a nefarious character credited only as the Thief harvests the worms from the roots of a rare blue orchid. The teens who help him procure these worms are rewarded with a sample, granting them a psychic connection with they use to synchronize dance movements in artistic collaboration leading to beauty. But such a psychic connection can also be used for exploitation as when the Thief proceeds to hypnotize people and manipulate them into giving him money. The film’s main female character (Kris) takes out a home equity loan under hypnosis and gives the money to the Thief, and the main male character (Jeff) is hypnotized into embezzling money from his employer.
When we first meet her, Kris is symbolically raped – she has a worm forced into her body – and then literally kidnapped and held captive. Jeff has gone through the same thing, but he is initially ensnared through a drug addiction – he presumably he takes one of the pills we see the Thief insert a worm into and sell on the street corner. So both characters are dealing with psychological impediments that were not entirely in their own control – addiction and trauma.
Here the film plays on the idea of real-life behavior-altering parasites to raise issues of free will. How much of our lives – our choices, our beliefs, even our character – have been shaped by contingent events outside of our control? This raises a problematic link between divine predestination and the problem of evil. Not only do bad things to happen to us beyond our control, but those things shape our identity, perhaps determining how we will react to God in the future and whether we will be able to find redemption for our suffering.
But the changes we experience due to suffering are not always bad. When Kris and Jeff first meet the similarity of their trauma unconsciously draws them together. The connection is so deep that when Kris tells about an experience from her childhood, Jeff begins to remember it as happening to him. It is as though their life-stories have become one through shared trauma.
When a mysterious character credited as the Sampler removes the worm from Kris (and presumably Jeff) and places it into a pig as the host for the next stage in the parasite’s life cycle, even Kris and Jeff’s pigs become psychically bonded to teach other. Apparently this connection is not typical in the world of the film, because the Sampler seems displeased by it. It seems that there was some special connection between the parasites themselves. Maybe they were born from the same orchid. Maybe one of the two pills the thief makes was bought by the drug-addicted Jeff and the other was forced into Kris like a date rape drug. In any event, their pigs mate and the Sampler must kill the resulting litter of piglets. But this only leads to the blooming of new orchids out of the dead piglets’ bodies which starts the cycle over and spreads the psychic connection to others.
In the end trauma becomes the birth of a social movement that is able to finally end the exploitation. It is as if all the parasite victims share one transcendentalist World Soul. Kris and Jeff find a list of other victims and mail them all a copy of Thoreau’s Walden to help them awaken from their dogmatic slumber and recall their suppressed trauma – which includes being forced to copy Walden by hand.
At the end Kris kills the Sampler and thinks she is now free. But, like those who thought the death of God would make them free, she is wrong. For one thing, the Sampler wasn’t really her tormenter, the Thief was. For another, if she really wanted to be free from “upstream” influences, she would have to renounce her relationship with Jeff which was only made possible by the cycle of exploitation.
It is interesting that of all books it is Walden that allows them to break the cycle of exploitation. On the one hand, Walden is about self-reliance and the film’s characters long to be free from the past influence of the Thief and the on-going interference of the Sampler. But the film as a whole seems to be a reminder that we can’t ever be truly self-reliant, since we are created by forces beyond ourselves. At best be make ourselves out of pre-existing material from the life we find ourselves thrown into. We can’t control whether we are raped or otherwise traumatized in our lives. And who we become is inevitably affected by those experiences. All we can control is what we make of ourselves after that.