If you strapped me to a lie detector, and I told you I had a firm grasp of Primer‘s plot, that needle would be twitching like crazy. The dialogue is so slathered in technical jargon it makes Star Trek sound like Sesame Street. Add an elliptical plot structure and occasional dips in sound quality, and you’ve got the perfect recipe to give Toddy a broken brain. At the same time, I can’t help but award Primer with a shaggy sort of respect. Writer-director Shane Carruth cobbled this film together with $7000 a couple rolls of duct tape. By comparison, Clerks might as well be Avatar. You can accuse it of intellectual snobbery or baffling incoherence, but damned if this movie ain’t some kind of achievement.
On that subject, Carruth didn’t just write and direct this sum’bitch, he also did the cinematography, editing, music, and played the main role. I haven’t confirmed with IMDB, but there’s a good chance he designed the clouds in the sky, as well. No doubt you’ve heard of directors wearing a lot of hats, but Carruth reminds of that scene where Joey puts on all of Chandler’s clothes. Again, I have to spot this movie a few stars, just on sheer impressiveness.
As for the plot…well, let me take a few Advil. The film starts out with four dudes sitting around a kitchen table. They’re engineers with a plan to invent something lucrative to attract venture capital. Eventually (Carruth yada-yadas the how and when), the group gets whittled down to just two: Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan). They begin building a mystery box in the garage, and speculate on what this thing might actually do. Some of the numbers deliver a surprising result: The box acts a rudimentary time machine.
Naturally, this revelation provokes a raft of ethical, spiritual, and scientific conundrums: What could this be used for? What should it be used for? Could there be physical consequences for the person who crawls inside this thing? Carruth embeds these heady questions within torrents of technobabble.
To his credit, Carruth doesn’t much care whether or not you can handle all this nerdy dialogue. He just chucks you in the deep end of the pool; if you kick and paddle, that’s great. If you drown, well…that’s fine, too. As a viewer of this dense, difficult material, you shouldn’t be shocked by either outcome.
You should be prepared for the ramshackle nature of the production. Carruth films in ragged 16mm, placing this film’s look somewhere between the Zapruder film and an episode of Donahue. The sound occasionally drops to a whisper-quiet–not good when you’ve got two characters talking about uncertainty principles and general relativity. On top of all that, neither Carruth nor Sullivan are professional actors, and their line reads can border on monotony.
Simply put, this movie is covered in warts. And yet, the story actually gets stronger and more intriguing as it goes along. The final third of Primer is tangled, wonky, and fascinating. I suspect further viewings will bring its story into sharper focus. Unfortunately, I don’t have a box in my garage, so I can’t speak to what my future ratings will be. Right now, Primer is an interesting little indie film–a shoestring labor built on shoestring characters. As a movie, I enjoy it more for what it accomplishes than what it actually is.
77 min. PG-13. On demand.