Most likely, you missed Primer when it was briefly in theaters last fall. The movie grossed just under $425,000 in limited release, which sounds a lot like a flop. However, considering that Primer (rated PG-13 for brief language) was made for about $7,000 in a Dallas, Texas, garage-and that it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance-that number doesn't look so bad.
Director/writer/cinematographer/editor/composer/producer/star Shane Carruth's film has been heralded for its economy, but the focus on Mr. Carruth's resourcefulness in some ways does a disservice to Primer. This movie doesn't look like it was shot for $7,000. Structurally and thematically, it is far more rewarding than films made for 150 times its measly budget.
Theatergoers may have been wary of Primer's complex plot or amorphous genre, but the film's newly released DVD is the perfect medium to enjoy this handsome (really, nearly every frame is fascinating in its own right), confounding film-perhaps again and again, until its time-travel paradoxes begin to make sense.
The film is essentially about two computer geeks, Aaron (Mr. Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who spend their evenings and weekends working in Aaron's garage on home-built gadgets. They're more than hobbyists-Aaron, Abe, and two other partners in this enterprise are ultimately looking to make money, to establish patents on new devices. They've met with at best modest success, until one day Aaron and Abe discover that their latest project performs a radically unexpected and unintended function.
That this function involves time travel is about all a reviewer should say about the plot, but that limited description, like the film's budget, sells Primer short. The movie has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for its commitment to taking science fiction seriously, rather than as a pretext for a special-effects extravaganza or interchangeable action-adventure plotting. That comparison may be useful, but Mr. Carruth's style is in many ways closer to playwright and screenwriter David Mamet's elaborate con games.
Very much like Mr. Mamet, Mr. Carruth uses a complex plot to focus his audience on character and motivation, and to explore the nature of trust, sticky ethical dilemmas, and differing perceptions of truth and reality. And Mr. Carruth has a similar love for obtuse dialogue that revels in the precise yet casually vernacular language of professionals.
Mr. Carruth's story floods the viewer with information from start to finish; no one can accuse him of withholding from his audience. But he never takes time to stop for momentum-destroying explanations, so, by the film's final act, the dense and swiftly moving plot puzzle begins to exhaust the synapses. Even repeated viewings probably won't (or can't) fully elucidate what happens to Abe and Aaron and what causes their relationship to devolve.
Primer won't suit all tastes. It's difficult, confusing, talky-and the word nerd appears frequently in reviews, both in describing the film and the filmmaker. But what's perhaps more surprising than Mr. Carruth's ingenuity or even his elaborate script is that he has professed in several interviews to be a Christian. Surprising not because this is inconsistent with Mr. Carruth's film, but because it's a bold admission from someone just breaking into an industry not particularly friendly to faith. But, then again, taking three years to play nearly every major role in front of and behind the camera in the production of Primer is nothing if not bold. Mr. Carruth is clearly a talent to watch.
Some independently produced films are good enough to make the audience wonder what the filmmaker could have done with a real budget. Primer is good enough to make one glad that Mr. Carruth didn't have any more money to work with, and to make one wish that more filmmakers were forced into the creativity-exercising challenge of working within such constraints.