PARK CITY, Utah -- When you're trying to get a sense of the buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, there is no better place to be than on one of the ubiquitous, notoriously slow-moving shuttles that transport moviegoers from theater to theater across sprawling Park City. On Monday afternoon, the shuttle bus leaving the festival's largest venue, the Eccles Center, was especially animated.
A version of the same question could be heard over and over again: What the hell did we just watch?
What they watched was Upstream Color, Dallas director Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to the sci-fi curio Primer, which won the festival's top prize in 2004. This new film, which Carruth shot mostly in Big D, is a puzzle box narrative involving (among other very strange things) worms that are harvested for psychotropic drugs, a pig farmer who composes music inspired by the emotional anguish of others and a group of people who have been kidnapped and bilked out of thousands of dollars.
All of this unfolds in free-association fashion, with one scene barely seeming to connect to the next, as Carruth's dreamlike score plays over the images. (And you thought Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life had its head in the clouds.)
Yet as exasperating and deliberately abstruse as Upstream Color sometimes feels, it's hard not to be compelled by this director's Mad Hatter vision. As with Primer -- a time-travel thriller told in rapid-fire corporate-speak -- Carruth displays zero interest in traditional modes of storytelling. Upstream Color, instead, floats gorgeously from one passage to the next, building a mounting sense of anxiety and melancholy at each mysterious step along the way.
Perhaps knowing that this would be impossible to sell to one of the established distributors, like Fox Searchlight or Focus, Carruth has also decided to release the movie himself, beginning in April. Here's hoping there are a few adventurous moviegoers out there willing to take a chance on a work that proudly leaves everyone scratching their heads.
Many Texas films
Upstream Color is part of an especially strong collection of Texas films at Sundance this year -- nine features were either made by Texans or shot in the state.
Jan. 20 brought the world premiere of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a Badlands-flavored tale of outlaw lovers (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), written and directed by gifted young Dallas filmmaker David Lowery. (Lowery's producing partners on the project are Toby Halbrooks, a former member of the Polyphonic Spree, and James Johnston, who co-owns Spiral Diner in Fort Worth.)
Later that night, Richard Linklater served up Before Midnight, a magnificent third installment in the series that began with Before Sunrise. Both of those films were very well received by critics at the festivals, and distributors are said to be circling. Look for them to make their way to theaters later in the year.
Paul Rudd gem
In many respects, though, the biggest Texas surprise at Sundance for me was Prince Avalanche, the latest from Richardson-raised writer-director David Gordon Green, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as workers painting lines on a stretch of rural Texas highway in the late 1980s. I've run hot and cold on Green, who started off with a pair of lyrical, character-driven dramas, George Washington and All the Real Girls, before heading to Hollywood to make comedies like Pineapple Express and The Sitter.
This new movie (a remake of a 2011 Icelandic film called Either Way, which I haven't seen) is as modest as they come -- for the most part, it's just Rudd and Hirsch talking for 90-plus minutes.
But with a mixture of eccentric comedy and extraordinary tenderness, Green explores the eternal male dilemma: between freedom and responsibility, wanting to stay young and being forced to grow up. The lead actors are both better than they've been in years, playing men who keep lying to themselves in the hopes of combating the sadness and despair they feel about their lives.
The buzz on this one has been low, and I can't imagine it will have much impact on the box office. (It's here searching for commercial distribution.) But it's the kind of small gem that you almost feel protective and parental toward: You love it so much that you can't wait to tell someone about it, starting with the stranger sitting next to you on the shuttle bus.