Shane Carruth seems to be a pretty determined kind of individual. The kind of person that, once he decides something should get done, it gets done, regardless of how difficult that may be. He also seems to be the kind of person who gets things done his way, or no way at all. I don’t know Shane Carruth, but the fact that Primer ever got made suggests this first aspect of his personality, and how it ended up suggests the second.
Carruth wrote, directed, played the lead, produced and edited the movie. He also composed the music. He made the film for just $7,000. Now, regardless of the end product, that’s a pretty staggering achievement, but he didn’t just get it made, he made something very much worth watching too.
Primer tells the story of two friends, Aaron and Abe, who work in unsatisfying engineering jobs for large corporations during the day, and in their spare time work in Aaron’s garage on various experiments that they imagine might make them the money that would take them away from all this. During these experiments, they stumble upon something incredible “ the two of them inadvertently build a kind of rudimentary time machine. The two men can’t travel far (this a $7,000 movie remember “ there can be no swooping back to prehistoric times to meet dinosaurs). What they can do is go from the evening of a day back to its morning.
While taking an extraordinary premise, the film remains low key and focuses on the relationship between the two men, and how this discovery changes them and their relationship. The film works because it presents this outlandish scenario in a genuinely plausible way “ reflecting the unglamorous and accidental nature of so many scientific achievements. Carruth actually studied physics while working on the script and the characters interact and use language in a believable, if occasionally incomprehensible way.
The evidence of Carruth’s refusal to compromise is clear in the mechanics of the time travel, which are pretty complicated, and not explained. The audience is left alone to piece together the (thoroughly thought out) logic behind it. It’s refreshing to see a director give this level of respect to his audience, but arguably Primer would be improved if he remembered most of us aren’t as smart as him. I was generally about three steps behind the action, constantly mentally scrambling to try to work out the series of events that have led to what’s currently on screen. Likewise, the big plot point reveals lose much of their impact, as you often fail to realize that a significant plot event has just taken place.
Primer is clearly a meticulously crafted piece of work (apparently Carruth spent close to two years working on the edits). And it’s a film that draws you in with its low key presentation of mindbending themes “ and perhaps partly due to budgetary constraints and certainly due to Carruth’s skill it keeps the characters foregrounded and the sci-fi explores the effect if strange circumstances on their behaviour. But while it’s draws you in, it also baffles with its refusal to explain its own complex logic. You almost yearn for a bit of expositionary dialogue. But then again, when the credits roll, you want to think more about it, read more about it, and maybe watch it again to see if you can get to the bottom of what’s going on “ and there’s not too many films you can say that about.