Primer (2004)

(c) 2004 THINKFilm

(c) 2004 THINKFilm

Try to go into Primer knowing as little about it as possible. I promise I won’t tell you anything more than you can get from the Netflix summary. It’s a small independent film, but don’t let that turn you off. What Shane Carruth manages to do with a box of wires and a digital timer rivals most of the CGI output the A-list puts out in a single film.

Aaron and Abe live a life common to any entrepreneur. They work during the day, hold families together, and spend much of their after hours pursuing a dream; in this case, a technological engineering dream that finds its roots in a garage. They stumble onto a discovery that carries profound implications. It’s bizarre, they’re not even sure how it works, but one thing is certain: whatever it is, it does work. Their journey into the unknown starts out carefully enough. They take their time, plan for every detail. Yet they can’t stop the freight train of their imaginations because the possibilities of what this newfound power is capable of really are endless, and so is the depth of the abyss they find themselves falling into. What they learn, what they ultimately decide to do with it, tests their friendship, their moral fiber, and the fiber of time itself.

It starts with a simple premise, but it’s one you have to settle into because the movie isn’t interested in dragging you along for the ride. It drops you right in the middle of something that’s almost impossible to comprehend at first. Give it time. This film rewards your patience in spectacular ways. It’s a twisted maze of moral complexity and creates knots of tension that would have made Hitchcock burn with envy. The ring of a cell phone in this picture creates more genuine terror than a dangerous man with a knife.

As the film starts its final turn, the narrative layers start to build on top of one another like a Jenga tower. It achieves the same level of wonder and dread of Inception without all the booming brass and bombast. It actually eclipses Inception by achieving the revelatory nuance that Nolan’s film needed. Both films’ third acts look cluttered and chaotic, but where Inception grew cluttered because of the glut of its spectacle, Primer‘s clutter has purpose and direction, and every inch of it matters.

You won’t find any familiar faces on screen, yet each of these actors turn in honest performances that could stand toe to toe with the most seasoned thespians. Their chemistry works so well you forget that it’s all staged. You’re getting a glimpse into someone else’s life, someone else’s secrets, and the cameras just happen to be there to capture it.

Primer was made for $7000, and it stands taller than most of its big budget cousins. Carruth took three years to make the film and did everything on the cheap. He wrote it, shot it, starred in it, edited it and scored it. He shot 80 minutes of footage, and the film runs only 77. It is a marvel of economic storytelling, and a work of profound integrity. It’ll take less than an hour and a half to watch, but you’ll be thinking about it long afterwards.

Then you’ll just want to watch it again.

Shane Carruth
David Sullivan
Casey Gooden
Anand Upadhyaya

Written and Directed by Shane Carruth

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