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Entries in Primer [2004] (1)

Thursday
Apr042013

Primer (2004)

Payday Clones

I rarely fall so far behind a movie's plot that I feel like an idiot for not keeping up, but Primer lost me after twenty minutes. This is a good thing. A very, very good thing.

Writer/director/star Shane Carruth's $7,000 debut is a frustrating, fascinating, and ultimately exhilarating time-travel picture that explores the mysteries of the universe through the eyes of the genre's least compelling protagonists. Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) aren't Marty McFly and Doc Brown by any stretch; nor are they sexy, clever wonks like Seth Brundle--they're monotone, early-thirties office workers who dream of gamed stock markets and tight margins. That their garage-grown side business winds up destroying chronology as we know it is perhaps the universe's greatest prank: What's more heartbreaking than two low-level executives being given the keys to rip-roaring sci-fi adventure?

That, I suppose, is the movie's big joke. Aaron and Abe are so greedy and distrustful of each other, so obsessed with commoditizing their discovery, that they completely upend the world before even partially examining what it is they've built. I'm being deliberately vague here, as much of the movie's fun comes from watching the boys' grand plans unravel in unexpected ways. Thanks to some really clever editing, the dialogue-driven story goes on seemingly inconsequential walkabouts; drops some huge bombs here and there; and then wanders off again--leaving the audience to yell, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up a minute!"

But Carruth soldiers on, and as Aaron and Abe continue to screw up the time/space continuum, Primer's narrative fabric wears thinner and thinner. Like its characters, the movie feels confused, unsure of what day it is, or which version of itself might be considered "real" (and in which dimension that reality exists). In lesser hands, this confusion might come off as a lazy artist's way of not admitting he's painted himself into a corner. But because Carruth doesn't care about traditional story resolution--indeed, because his story is about the inability to find resolution after so severely fudging the facts--his characters simply march through the freshly set paint, leaving gaudy footprints all over a floor the cosmos didn't want colored in the first place.

The first detail I mentioned about this film was its budget, which is a big key to appreciating what Carruth has done here. I've spent a lot of time lately lamenting the state of low-budget cinema, and had begun to think I was losing my mind. Thankfully, I discovered Primer, a movie whose larger-than-life themes aren't under-served by limited finances. Aaron and Abe's story involves paradoxes, doppelgangers, and a handful of other unique problems that don't require special effects, period costumes, or exotic locales to pull off. Like a great novel, the action (such as it is) is merely an offshoot of the ideas, and not a stand-in for them.

Primer's only downside is its casting. Granted, we're dealing with an independent movie, so I shouldn't expect Julliard-trained professionals. But in early scenes involving the leads' initial business partners, the actors are ill-equipped to deal with the dense corporate and scientific jargon gushing from their mouths. Perhaps Carruth and company went Method on us, imbuing their characters with the same dry, mumbling stiffness one might expect from people who've built careers on a lack of imagination. Or maybe they just weren't up to the task. Fortunately, Primer becomes a two-man show soon enough, and Carruth and Sullivan (mostly) smooth out the rough beginnings.

At some point soon, I'll have to watch this movie again. Like its characters, I have a feeling I'll make several return trips in the hopes of understanding just what the hell is going on. I get that many bad things happened on Aaron and Abe's not-so-excellent adventure; I'm just not sure why or how much of it came to be. The answers are all there, I think. Or maybe the answer is that there is no answer--that, as some have theorized, the consequences for mucking around with time travel are so severe as to be indecipherable and irreversible. Either way, I'd be an idiot not to try.