Dissecting Upstream Color: What Came First, the Pig, the Worm or the Orchid?

Upstream Color is now available to everyone, so I thought it’s about time to break it down to the best of my abilities to help fuel the conversation.

My analysis comes from having seen this film twice now on the big screen (my original review), but it is now available on VOD, Blu-ray and many other services.

I would still highly recommend seeking the film out in theaters if at all possible, the sound design is incredible, but if you haven’t this sentence will serve as an obvious **SPOILER** warning for the rest of the article.

Does Kris have a lost child prior to the events of the film?
I didn’t notice this the first time around, but I am almost positive that there is a picture of Kris playing with a small child on her night stand next to her bed. In the scene where the worm is starting to make its presence known, spreading her out across the bed, I caught a glimpse of this picture. This would be an excellent little detail to make her life that much more tragic, as well as further explaining her violent reaction to losing her pig babies. It also makes the film’s final shot that much more affecting as she finally has the children she has longed for her entire life.

How do Kris and Jeff deceive the Sampler so Kris can get her revenge?
The amazing final fifteen or so minutes of this film are centered around Kris finally getting her revenge on the Sampler for murdering her piglets. Some could argue that she is also getting revenge, unjustly, for stealing her life away, but I don’t know if she is necessarily is putting that blame on the Sampler. Regardless, how did Jeff and Kris project not just that they were together, but in the office building as well to the Sampler. The music that the Sampler creates seems far more crucial the second time through watching the film and Kris is able to take it in and “master” in some capacity.

Jeff and Kris’ linked minds also has to be a key to this ability, but this is one of the films most supernatural elements that doesn’t really have an explanation apparent in the film. Still, my assumption is that through the music our couple is able to reverse engineer the Sampler’s abilities and project back on to him; using the simple lunch setting as a distraction for Kris to sneak into the farm and eliminate the Sampler.

I also found it interesting that Kris didn’t seem to understand the pig connection upon her murderous visit to the farm; only realizing this after they open all of the files at home to inform all of the other “victims.”

What is the history between the Sampler, the Thief and the Orchid Hunters?
In interviews Carruth has played both sides of the coin on this one, saying that none of these guys are connected, but that mentorships almost did play a significant role in this story at one point. Pieces of that mentorship still exist in the film, the Orchid Daughter from her mother and the Thief has some young apprentices, so I have to assume that this process has been something that has been passed along for some time. I imagine that at one point that all of these processes had been part of a collective group under one roof and maybe over time they broke apart for whatever reason.

One clue that plays into this theory is that both the Sampler and the Thief use blue lines on their glasses for their subjects to drink and I am sure we could maybe find some other connections if we look hard enough on the Blu-ray. The three parties seem pretty clearly unconnected at this point of the story, but the mystery around how this process all started is one of the richest subjects to thinking about after the film.

What spurs the shared brain between Kris and Jeff?
The two aren’t connected by the same worm, which is how the Thief connects with his victims, yet they create this symmetry of the mind in which they can’t remember whose memories are whose and can communicate with telepathy across long distances. Is it the proximity of the pigs on the farm allowing them to always stay connected or is this something that worm people in general can form if they begin to bond? I go with the pigs being the link and I feel like the Kris and Jeff could’ve become lovers without all of this weird stuff happening if they had not been linked by their pig halves. Though, one could just as easily argue they never meet if it isn’t for the pigs; they kiss instantaneously in the pen. All that said, I would have loved to see them use these abilities a bit more to see the extent of their telepathy/projection skills.


Why did the Sampler kill the piglets?
Besides the Pig Kris and Pig Jeff family messing up the Sampler’s little pig world, he almost seemed afraid of the potential of two worm surrogate pigs having children. Was he upset that he couldn’t look inside their minds and it was a waste to use resources on them? Or was he simply following some code passed down to him to keep the cycle alive? Does he have to sacrifice offspring from his farm so he can blue the orchids and get more potential patients to him? I am not too sure about this one, but I feel like there has to be more to it than just a simple annoyance. The sampler mentioned he sold offspring to a local farm at one point in the film, why were these piglets so different to him?

What is the significance of Walden?
Does Kris regain her lost memories as she reads Walden or is it simply giving her the power to act on her own instead of being overwhelmed by the experiences that led her here? She has an epiphany in the pool where she grasps the orange orchid and it is only after this is she able to fight back against the Sampler. Walden had nothing to do with the Sampler though, so does having a worm go through you allow you these superpowers that Jeff and Kris use to get their revenge? The book is meditative to Kris and she feels like it can help anyone that has experienced what she has, she sent all of the pig people a copy, but maybe Carruth is giving the book a mythological power as a guide to this higher level of being.

What happened with the dysfunctional couple and the Sampler?
There is still one sequence in the film that is still quite puzzling after a second viewing and that is the scene that involves a struggling couple who we get to see replay a certain sequence over and over again. The man in the relationship seems to be the person the Sampler is observing and he takes a keen interest in this guy after we observe his wife/girlfriend being taken away to the hospital. The memory we see replayed seems to be the last thing these two said to each other before the accident and the Sampler seems to want to fix that. Setting up a chair and playing music to the guy’s pig surrogate (through his psychic connection mind you), the Sampler seems to be affecting the guy’s memory as he overlooks his wife in the hospital. It almost seems like the Sampler is tuning this guy’s memory to the perfect moment so he can feel less guilty about that conversation possibly being the last one he and his significant other ever have. A moment of empathy from the mysterious Sampler that certainly lends you to question how much he deserved to be killed by Kris at the end.

Could Kris and Jeff hear the Sampler working on the sounds/music that led them to the farm?
When the two come across the Sampler’s mailbox for the first time, they are drawn by all of the sounds that the Sampler had recorded there earlier in the film. The editing in the film was very deliberate to overlay the Sampler sampling these sounds with Kris and Jeff working, like they were almost hearing them, but he never plays this music at the farm or for their pigs. He didn’t even record the music, throwing the notes he put down off the same bridge he tosses Kris and Jeff’s pig babies, but all of this symmetry certainly feels like something on a second viewing. So how do they know these notes so well; maybe on the third time.

What came first; the pig, the worm or the orchid?

This is obviously an impossible riddle to try and solve, but I think it has to be the orchid; right? The control substance is inherent in the plant, something natural, while the other two possibilities have the power forced upon them by the plant and the sampler. Still, the orchids can’t go blue without the pigs, who don’t even have worms or traces of the original orchid substance in them unless it was passed down to them by their parents, so that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Maybe the death of the piglets that have gone on to the neighboring farm have been supplying the orchids with the magic they need to go blue in some capacity, leaving the Sampler oblivious, but there isn’t enough data in the film to support this. Plus, this also begs the question that maybe it is the worms that are special. They live under these orchids and then end up in their parasite/host pig relationship and maybe only through their mating can the special piglets be made that possess the power of blue.

Is anyone else’s brain hurting?

18 thoughts on “Dissecting Upstream Color: What Came First, the Pig, the Worm or the Orchid?

  1. Kris and Jeff gain the ability to read each others minds after their pigs have sex. They share lets call it the fluid from their respective worms. Eventually Kris is even “part” of the water and the tree after her piglets decompose.

    I still don’t understand the music Jeff bought at the store. Was it music by the sampler or just similar in technique?

    The sampler did not know what the thief was doing, nor did the orchid seller.

    The red head and beard guy couple were an example of the samplers empathy for the people/pigs. Maybe they lost piglets too? I doubt it, no mind reading.

    The only reason Kris and Jeff found each other is because their pigs did and/or vice versa.

    Kris shot the sampler because he killed her piglets/kids.

    Walden was used as a way of control by the thief. There are deeper meanings for the use of Walden, but all the pigs/people had been controlled the same way by the thief, thus when kris and jeff discover the walden link they send books to everyone allowing them to understand as well.

    In the samplers final moments he understands what he has done and is remorseful. That is why I don’t believe is understands the cycle and the film shows some small plot holes. This is not the first time he has thrown piglets in the water or maybe just pigs. Are red head and beard guy the couple before Kris and Jeff, but instead she kills herself because of the piglets death.

    Also in the hospital the doctor said she had had a procedure to remove cancer from her uterus, but Kris does not know this. Another slight plot hole.

    I could do this all day. What an awesome movie.

  2. Correlation does not equal causation.

    Interesting theroy on the other couple being a possible pig couple as well.

    The music Jeff buys is the Sampler’s.

  3. Some great stuff. It’s fascinating that what’s fairly clear to one viewer is opaque to another.

    My initial take on the Sampler and the couple was the same as yours, but I’m now leaning towards a different possibility. Note that the Sampler communes with the Sampled via the pigs immediately after he abandons the experiment of coordinating soundscapes with Kris and Jeff (and others?) through music. When Kris cuts the thread, the experiment fails and he tosses his notes away. He then communes with the Sampled instead, as if this fills an emotional need. And he runs through them until he finds someone experiencing extreme emotions. So I now wonder whether the explicit experience of the different scenarios is something only the Sampler experienced, since it was for his benefit, while the husband would be left only with confused memories. And this suggests that the scrambling and looping of Kris and Jeff’s memories (“they could be starlings”) is the result of the Sampler eavesdropping on the emotions of their romance.

    Re the cycle: I believe the psychoactive element is a microorganism which infects first orchids, then grubs which feed on the roots of the orchids, and then pigs which eat the grubs. In the natural cycle, the pigs must then have their behavior altered so that they die in water, allowing the organism to infect the orchids. This is a classic parasitic life cycle (which is altered when the pigs get their grubs via transplantation from a previous human host). And speaking of which, for a diagram of that, just freeze frame at 0:00:34. (How cool is that? I didn’t get it until viewing number four, and I burst out laughing when I did.)

    I’ve seen the film three times now in full, and I’m working through it slowly over the next few days taking comprehensive notes, and then I’m seeing it Thursday with friends, and then I’ll probably double check the notes on a sixth viewing. The results will go up at IMDB, and I’ll give you credit for anything I steal! I’ve already got 4800 words on the first 15 minutes. There are important motifs you barely mention: think about the importance of immersion in water, and running water in general. The grubs apparently need immersion in water to become fully psychoactive, the memory that Kris and Jeff are most confused about is a near drowning by “Renny,” and it’s only when Kris is underwater that she remembers passages from Walden, and has the vision of the yellow flower that gives her visions of / information about the Sampler’s location when she grabs it.

  4. RE the connected minds: You probably noticed, but one of the more overt references to this was the image of two newborn children conjoined at the head (i.e. sharing a brain) on a television in the background of a Kris/Jeff moment..

  5. Some more from me after getting some sleep:
    At first I thought The Sampler was recording unique sounds because he knew that whichever sound he associated with that particular individual could both be used to draw them to him but also him to them. So by using sounds that he knew but which other were unlikely to ever hear he was protecting himself. However then the orchid Kris touches lets her hear that sound, suggesting maybe these sound memories are distributed somehow. At the very least I think the organism carries memories from generation to generation, which is why the pigs as well as J/K are drawn to each other.
    The problem with this theory is why does the sampler record these sounds and publish them – maybe he just can’t resist since he is human and enjoys sounds?

    Minor notes:
    -Sampler throws his “symphony of life” into a stream
    -At the beginning Kris collects checkers into piles then messes them up in between drinking water and copying Walden. This parallels here retrieval of the stones from the pool into piles later, which also triggers memories of Walden.

  6. Just a quick observation I made on your question:
    “The sampler mentioned he sold offspring to a local farm at one point in the film, why were these piglets so different to him?”

    I think the Sampler was lying when he told the farmhand he sold offspring to a “guy down the road.” He was being dismissive of the guy and I think was just coming up with a story for what he did with all of his piglets and sending the guy on his way. I don’t think he really sold any of the piglets, but dumped him like the ones we saw on-screen.

  7. On the significance of Walden and agency:

    “The book is meditative to Kris and she feels like it can help anyone that has experienced what she has, she sent all of the pig people a copy, but maybe Carruth is giving the book a mythological power as a guide to this higher level of being.”

    I agree that Carruth is giving the book power, but I don’t think it is necessarily “mythological.” If anything, I think it calls forth deeper morality questions and life-choice decisions — more the question of individual agency. What I’m suggesting is that the presence of the work within the film functions more than a “mythical” device that unifies the pig victims. I wonder “why Walden? why not some other book? what is it about the ideas contained within the book that are attractive to Carruth? why did he choose it?”

    It is interesting that he chose Walden as the book that the thief uses to occupy his victims. I’ve never read Walden, but I am familiar with Thoreau’s theories regarding transcendentalism. In a nutshell, these thinkers believed society and civilization was inherently flawed; they focused largely on the individual, self-sufficiency and believed strongly in a connection to nature rather than civilization. It is basically Thoreau’s assertion of his own personal beliefs that are divergent from typical, accepted societal norms. He talks about how to access the sublime, how to achieve transcendence. I believe that Carruth is trying to tie in transcendence, or connectivity with the effect the worms induce. The worms allow for people to “see beyond” if you will, to reach a higher plane. They connect people (and animals) so intimately that it becomes dangerous if tampered with. I agree with your point about the book functioning as a “guide to a higher level of being.” That is essentially what Walden is attempting to outline — how an individual can transcend, how to access the sublime, how to achieve a deeper understanding about the world, how to expand consciousness.

    But the thief misuses this power. He manipulates the effects of the worms in order to do his bidding. He has exercised his agency over another person, forcibly making his victims do his will rather than their own. It is rather ironic (or rather perfectly suggestive) that he chooses to give his victims a book that propagates free will, when he is denying them theirs. This is the first corruption of agency.

    The second being The Sampler. While the thief misuses the worms capabilities for personal financial greed, The Sampler misuses them for intellectual greed — dangerous curiosity. He crosses the moral line of individual agency but experimenting with both people and pigs. He desires to access these peoples’ lives but he doesn’t really take responsibility for his meddling. His presence was never asked for. Neither the people nor the pigs wanted this bodily experimentation to be conducted on them. They were forced into this connection beyond their will. Yes, The Sampler does seem to have compassion or empathy (as outlined by the red head and bearded man couple) but he never acts on it. He lets his meddling persist, without ever telling these people they are part of his selfish experiment. He is accessing their lives, their minds, their connections without ever getting permission to do so. Its a total invasion, a crime against intimacy, against the most personal and intimate things — thoughts, emotions, memories.

    This is why Kris shoots him. This is why he must die. He has forcibly interfered with an individuals abilities to have private thoughts, to be alone in their mind. He has taken something beautiful and good, the worm’s effect of intimacy and connection, and turned it into a game he plays to entertain himself. He doesn’t realize he has robbed individuals of their agency — he does not know the extent of how wrong he has done to them as human beings by watching in on them and disrupting their lives. This is reflective in his ruthless killing of the piglets. He forcibly separates the pigs even though they are strongly drawn to each other and kills their offspring. He fails to see the beauty of the connection. He kills off the piglets because he is afraid he cannot control them, as he is struggling to control the adult pigs. He must get rid of this unplanned accident because it does not fit into the perimeters of his experiment. The connection is too deep, it is beyond his understanding so he must exterminate unwanted variables. But this act, destroys Kris and Jeff emotionally. They feel the loss but do not know why. Again, The Sampler is wrongly meddling with individual lives. He does not understand the deeper ramifications of his actions. He is abusing the worm connection for his own purposes. He does not think of how these people (and these pigs) are affected. He cares only for his own experience of being able to “pirate” their inner lives.

    In Walden, there is a chapter dedicated to sounds. About how unnatural sounds disrupt the process of transcendence (i.e. the sound of a train invading Thoreau’s thoughts and how it displeased him). This maybe why The Sampler is obsessed with sound. He uses sound as a device to lure the people in, to access their minds and invade their inner selves. He records sounds that he strategically devises, that are within his control (the bricks falling, the rocks sliding down metal, the iron tool rubbing against whatever that thing was), he manipulates sound in the same way he manipulates the connection between the pigs and people. He chooses what objects, where, when… how the sound is created. He ties the sound with a person in order to manipulate the connection. Again, the sound in the house drives Kris and Jeff crazy. Kris can’t sleep, she’s obsessing over a noise and she has no idea why. When Jeff discovers the published sounds, he can feel their connection but does not understand. The two are frustrated because they know the sounds mean something, but why they’re significant is unclear. Kris listens to them and pulls off her headphones (if I remember? or is it Jeff?). Is is uncomfortable for her to listen?

    I guess what I’m suggesting is that the inclusion of Walden is deeply meaningful. It really does help to address some of the themes the film implies through very minute details. I think Carruth intends for us to draw parallels from Walden’s theories to the films themes. For instance, Walden stresses the importance of transcendence and one of its suggested methods is through connection with the natural world. The Sampler denied the people of his experiment the knowledge of their connection to their pigs. He created the connection to the pigs, but he denied the people access to it. However once Kris and Jeff discover their pig counterpoints, they invite all the victims to come find their pigs. Each person tends their animal, caring for it and feels the depth of connection. They all seem happy to be with their connected animals — possibly more complete.

    I read a post somewhere that suggests Kris’ desire to have children, but she obviously cannot for unexplained reasons (though the post explored some reasons and details I missed. I’ll have to watch this film again for sure) and the final scene is so moving because she feels an emotional, maternal connection to the piglet. It is the child she cannot have. And the only way she can attain this feeling is through transcendence, or experiencing a connection on a “higher plane.” I think the film very much stresses a connection to the natural with the inclusion of the pig counterpoints, the motif of water immersion, the long visual shots of pastoral landscape, the orchids, the worms… The scene where Kris and Jeff are lying together in the pig pen (not literally, of course) shows the transcending connection between the natural world of the pigs and the lovers.

    Just wanted to throw in my two cents about Walden. There are so many more ways you can analyze this movie, but thought I’d give it a stab since the comments I’ve been reading haven’t considered the books deeper significance.

    Do you think the thief and the Sampler are wrong in what they did? Its unclear if all parties (thief, Sampler, orchid collectors) were “in it together,” what do you think? Who committed the larger crime?

    My vote is the Sampler. That’s why Kris felt she must kill him. She exercised her own agency against someone who wrongfully invaded her most personal, most intimate self. She fought back, destroyed the source of the worm connection abuse and united those experimented on in a more positive way. No one is peering unknowingly into their lives anymore — they are free to experience the beauty and transcendental qualities of the worm connection as they now choose and have an animal friend now too. Kris gave them back their agency and allowed for each individual to experience the connection as they choose. The connection is now beautiful instead of frightening or disconcerting. The people can see the beauty behind the connection and recognize its goodness.

    That’s my take at least after the first viewing…

  8. how about the drug addiction connection between kriss and jeff?
    Kriss buys the drugs from the thief (or the worm guy)in some pub and gets her life messed just after that,thats how she got the worms in her body in the fist place, right?
    and later on when jeff tells kriss that hes got divorced due to his wrecking drug addiction and adds that how he got lost everything he had…may be jeff came across with the same drug/worm dealer back then.
    and I dont blame the worm guy,appreantly hes been practising on some kind of a medicine,thus he needs the money so he picks up with the ppl whose having drug addiction.

  9. @brandon: so you’re saying that it’s OK to wreck other people’s life for financial gain as long as they are drug addicts? Dude…

    Anyway Kris didn’t get the worm from the drugs, the worm was forced down her throat by the Thief. Jeff doesn’t admit that his marriage was ruined because of a drug addiction.

    @Rusty: “Also in the hospital the doctor said she had had a procedure to remove cancer from her uterus, but Kris does not know this. Another slight plot hole.”

    The doctors see that there was “someone” living in there, and they think it was cancer. It was the worm.

    What baffles me is how did the Sampled people find the Sampler in the first place (while they still carried the worm)? The Sampler is blasting the sub-bass sounds, and that’s what attracts the hypnotized worm hosts? That’s it?

  10. Just a thought about the relationship between the pigs and the people. What if the people represent one’s higher self and the pigs represent humans. As above, so below. The same relationship exists between one’s higher self and their “beast”.

  11. @brendon – Kris didn’t buy drugs, fool. Did you even watch the movie? She was TAZED and FORCE FED the worm. Jeff never talks about drugs ruining his marriage.

    Talk about an agenda. Get back to you DARE meeting.

  12. About the Sampler and his pigs: I think because two victims meet in real life, Kris and Jeff, that their counterpart pigs also meet. And because Kris and Jeff get together and fall in love, the pigs also fall in love and the pigs do what animals do: they mate. So now there is a anomaly: there are pig babies in existence that have come from modified pigs. I think the Sampler does not now what to do with these babies, since he only keeps the pigs to take care of them until they die, so therefore he disposes of them. With the unintentional effect that they are the food for the orchids around that water stream.
    And he did this too with the couple we see in between, where the female human counterpart goes crazy with the disposal of her pig counterpart babies by the Sampler.
    This could mean that the Sampler only wants to help the victims. Him using the pigs to extract the worms does not mean he has wrong intentions: maybe the only way the worms come out is when they are attracted to another bloodstream. And since by this transfer a connection comes into existence between the human and the pig, he has to take care of the pigs.

  13. Whoever made that point about the motif of disciples and mentors hit the nail on the head. The Thief has two young disciples who practice an ancient-looking martial arts-like practice which looks like a rite of initiation. We get the feeling they are highly privileged to be in this position. Maybe they don’t know that the Thief is intending to steal a woman’s money.

    The Orchid Collectors mom and daughter are also part of this system. In the first scene that they pick orchids, they are both present, but in the second scene, it is only the daughter. The motif of mother-child is strong in this film as well.

    The only person who is not passing on his craft is the Sampler, which is why he is the one who ultimately fails the system.

    To me this film is about unconscious connections. The three components of the cycle that allows this human-pig connection operate without knowledge of how their activities effect people on a greater scale. I don’t feel that the Sampler is necessarily bad. I think he lacks empathy, but he is not self-aware enough to be “bad”. An example of the parallels he sees between his sound sampling project and his pig pen project is when something goes wrong, like the notes or the piglets, he tosses them over into the stream. I think he is pure scientist and zero humanist. In the only scene we see him talking with someone else, he is waving them away with irritation. The man suggesting that he sell his pigs to a petting farm doesn’t understand the depth of the Sampler, and the Sampler wants him to go away. We can infer this is his relationship to society at large.

    Why are Kris and Jeff the ones to break this cycle? The simple answer is love. The complex answer is that they have an untold story and many separate points of connection (Vermont, Renny, being submerged underwater, losing something precious to them– Kris her child and Jeff his marriage) that can be as abstract or tangible as the viewer wants– all it matters is that they are aware of this connection and empty themselves of ego enough to See the Other.

  14. Whoever made that point about the motif of disciples and mentors hit the nail on the head. The Thief has two young disciples who practice an ancient-looking martial arts-like practice which looks like a rite of initiation

    I think you’ve misread this scene. The boys are showing another boy the effects of taking the blue chemical, which in this scene allows them to link their minds together. Notice they drink from the same flask and after doing so they are able to closely match each others movements. The blue crystal provides a hive like mind, at least to a small degree. They understand each others immediate intentions well enough to prevent either of them from being able to hit the other.

    In the repeated scene(s) where we see the couple argue at the doorway, it seems to me the sampler is trying to use his power over the man to rewrite history, in effect to become like a god. He has been passively observing others lives, vicariously living through them, feeling their emotions and feeding off this. The couple scene shows him trying to take it even further, by controlling their memories and possibly their future actions.

    The music they buy in the store is by the sampler.

    By listening to the music they begin to create a reverse bond from themselves back to the sampler. In an earlier scene they attempt to find the farm, although they aren’t aware this is what they are looking for or quite why – they are still drawn to that general area. In the end of the film, the bond is stronger and they are able to locate the farm. I believe Kris is able to reach him unknown as they use the same ability to push new memories or experiences back onto the sampler. They are rewriting his memory to make him believe that he is observing them in a cafe, which Kris approaches him and takes vengeance for the murder of her piglets.

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