Primer is the kind of movie that can give you an inferiority complex, which may be one reason why it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Another reason is that one man, Shane Carruth, wrote, produced and directed it; composed the music; shared cinematographer duties; and played one of the two leading roles. Add the fact that it’s Carruth’s first film and that it was produced for a little more than $7,000, and you have just the thing to wow the festival circuit and induce that inferiority complex. Could you make a movie that looked this good for seven grand?
Then there’s the movie itself, which is by turns hypnotic, confusing, fascinating, vexing and exasperating, bringing on other feelings of inferiority. We can’t really follow Carruth’s script, but we have a feeling that we ought to and that if we could just sit through it a couple of times more, all might come clear.
The story has to do with four young would-be entrepreneurs working nights and weekends in a suburban garage. What they’re up to is obscured by a welter of mathematical jargon, a private language that only they seem to understand, but it seems clear that they sense they’re on the brink of some sort of breakthrough.
Two of them, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), have the biggest investment in the project—emotionally and intellectually, at least—and they begin grappling with what seems to them their major hurdle. They cannibalize a catalytic converter from Aaron’s car and are about to rip the copper tubing out of his refrigerator before their (pun intended) cooler heads prevail, and they get the tubing elsewhere.
The gizmo they concoct looks something like round pancake griddles on tripods arranged in a three-way standoff. They put a paperweight on it, encase it in some kind of shielding, and fire it up with a couple of 12-volt car batteries. The paperweight seems to grow lighter—we see a digital meter go from 7.7 decagrams to 7.1 and then 6.9—and Aaron later discovers that whatever the machine is doing, it keeps doing it, at least for a while, even after he disconnects the batteries.
Then, other strange things happen. Some sort of fungal growth develops in a matter of hours that normally would take years. They put a couple of watches in the machine, and something—I’m afraid I didn’t catch exactly what—happens to them. Gradually, feeling their way, groping from one experiment to the next, Abe and Aaron come to understand that their new thingamajig doesn’t seem to fit the bill for what they needed in the first place. However, it seems to be—and what’s important to remember is that they don’t really know exactly how—some sort of time machine. Before long, they find that their experiment has unexpected and unintended consequences.
I want to give Carruth his due, because what he’s done with Primer is no small thing. How long has it been since a science-fiction movie grappled with real ideas, with hard science and no digital special effects? Carruth was a math major in college and worked as an engineer before deciding to become a filmmaker, and the nuts-and-bolts practicality of his script is both bracing and elusive; he lets us eavesdrop on conversations that we can’t entirely follow.
But Carruth’s math background proves as much a liability as an asset. Except for Aaron and Abe (played with un-self-conscious ease by Carruth and Sullivan), the characters in the story never come into focus. It’s startling to read the names of cast members in the closing credits; up ’til then, it feels almost like a two-character movie. There are names mentioned and faces shown, but the film, for all its brain-teasing, remains more of a mathematical word problem ("If Johnny has 10 apples, and he gives four to Tommy …") than a story of people we know and care about.
Is Carruth a new talent worth watching? Who knows? Primer may prove to be a one-off, unique and unrepeatable. But in its knotty intellectual challenge and its intelligent economy (in every sense of the word), it’s a genuine achievement—frustrating and opaque but hard to dismiss.