Written and directed by Shane Carruth
Primer may be one of the last true cult films. Movies kind of like it still get made, but when they don't sink into near-oblivion, remembered by few and beloved by no one, thanks to the amplifying possibilities of the Internet they become instantaneously big-fish-in-small-pond phenomena. (Is Mandy a cult film? Is Psycho Goreman? At least one academic pinned the death of cult cinema to 2006, with the abortive corporate attempt to manufacture it with Snakes On a Plane.) Primer, arriving in 2004, just barely predates the paradigm shift. It was championed by a few important institutional voices—Roger Ebert gave it a glowing write-up, in what I'd call one of his better pieces of short-form film writing; it certainly bears mentioning that it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, a pretty good start for any "cult film"—and it raked in a decent-ish half million dollar box office gross during its spotty theatrical release cycle.
But it also got bad reviews and lukewarm reviews (it was charged with being boring, confusing, and amateurish, and arguably it is all three of those things), and it was something its ideal viewer felt like they found, rather than were found by, which isn't often the case with the little weirdies of the 2010s and, presumably, the 2020s. So to the extent it ever became a big deal, it became one over time on home video and on file sharing services, and mostly for an audience of nerds. Not that it was ever that big a deal: its maker, Shane Carruth, spun his indie wheels for another nine years before releasing his only other feature, and the most famous thing about him since then has been getting slapped with a permanent restraining order for abusing his spouse. (Which in turn led to the blu-ray release of Primer and that other feature, Upstream Color, being quietly dumped onto the market by Arrow a couple of weeks ago, a somewhat perverse outcome for the victim, Amy Seimetz, considering the latter is one of her more important performances.) Well, long before that, Primer grew out of the smallest possible corner of the filmmaking world, with Carruth filming it in and around Dallas, TX, with barely any crew—Carruth occupies at least six different credits, director, writer, star, producer, composer, and sound designer. Even catering came courtesy the fridge at his parents' house (they also appear in the movie, alongside many of Carruth's friends; the only actor qua actor is his co-star, and even then, it was David Sullivan's first role and it shows). The film cost $7,000, which is less than the down payment on my house and my house is so Rust Belt the plumbing is more oxide than iron. For that matter, $7,000 is less than the quote I got to fix it.
But the number of films that turn being this cheap into this much of a strength is approximately zero, and in two very important ways Primer makes its form its function, aligning its very crudeness so perfectly with its narrative and Carruth's ambitions for the project that it almost never feels like anything but the work of tested artists. (The main and maybe only way it doesn't is that the cost of filmstock, which you can skimp on—Carruth elected to shoot the film on 16mm, which is a productive choice in and of itself—but in 2004 remained something like a non-scaleable cost regardless of a production's size, meant that the film has a ratio of shot footage to used footage approaching 2:1, and however capable of good performances Carruth and Sullivan may have been, it's not unnoticeable how the abbreviated, one-take-or-two-if-you-flub-your-line-completely nature of Carruth's circumstances punish the both of them.)
Feeling cheap seems right for this story, is all: Primer concerns itself with a pair of young techbros, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (Sullivan)—I don't think the Biblical names mean anything—whom we meet nearer the bottom of their particular ladder than the top (for starters, they're in Texas). Nevertheless, they're ambitious, capable of flashes of brilliance and already chafing in their undistinguished engineering jobs, dreaming of creating something of their own. It is to this end that after their fifty hour work weeks they each spend another thirty slaving away on arcane projects in Aaron's garage with another pair of friends (Casey Gooden and Anand Upadhyaya, but wholly unimportant to this story except by virtue of being brusquely cut out of it). It is in the garage that Aaron and Abe, with the aim of using superconductors to alter gravitational conditions inside the bounds of an unassuming metal box, find that they've succeeded beyond their imaginations. Discovering that time passes strangely inside the box, what they determine they've built is a machine for making a four-dimensional loop, allowing any object within it, theoretically, to be able to exit that loop either at one end or the other. They realize that if the object could move itself, it could, by waiting the appropriate amount of time—an hour for an hour, a day for a day—decide to come out when the machine started. The short version, then: Carruth appears to have written his screenplay under a self-imposed challenge to never use either the phrase "time travel" or "time machine." Truthfully, the most enduring mystery of the movie, to me, is why it's titled "Primer."
Things get more complicated from there, which is almost needless to say, for Primer remains fairly well-known as a terrifically confusing film that contemptuously refuses to hold your hand for virtually its entire runtime. This can be (and very frequently has been) overemphasized: the jargony dialogue often refers to real things but in a very pop science register, despite Carruth's math degree; meanwhile, Aaron, or at least some rendition of Aaron, namely the one whose narration—a phone call to himself—has cropped up throughout the film and arguably made things more opaque, at the last has a fairly involved expository monologue that answers all of the most pressing plot questions the viewer might have had. But it's a complicated time travel construct even so, inviting you to figure it out as an intellectual exercise, a challenge typically answered by way of charts and long-ass explainers. That's a perfectly valid (and fun!) way to approach a puzzlebox film like this one, but it overlooks the basic fact that Primer's overriding goal as a work of cinema is to keep you in a state of confusion, I expect as a proxy for the feeling of falling through the floor of a universe that isn't nearly as solidly-defined as we might like.
Carruth constructs Primer out of small scenes (sometimes not even scenes, but snippets) with wildly elliptical editing rhythms, with conversations that started before we came in and we don't see finish, delivered by first-time actors playing callow young men with vague aspirations, whose flatness Carruth claims he actively cultivated, dealing with the most immediate consequences of their invention and coming up with very clever plans about how they can use the machine without necessarily thinking through whether they should. This is where that cheapness really works, too, since what Carruth was after was a scientific discovery of immense importance stumbled across by accident by the smallest human beings capable of doing so, a movie about wonders being invented in a garage that looks like it was made in a garage. (One thing militating against Primer as a "cult film" is how unusually sober it is, but it's not dour, and it occasionally mines genuine laughs out of the everyman quality of its protagonists. When Aaron starts copiously bleeding from his ear: "Is this normal?" "For the machine?" "For people!")
Every formal element tends to reinforce this, with that grainy-as-hell 16mm cinematography frequently lit by the blaring fluorescence of a "production design" effort that amounted to finding vaguely-professional-looking exurban spaces to shoot in along with renting a storage locker for Aaron and Abe to build their human-sized time machines in. (Though by no means does Primer ever look bad, or unintentional: Carruth did a lot of prep work for each shot, knowing he effectively had to get it right on the first or second try, and a surprising amount of Primer involves splendid visual storytelling that informs us about the characters in the absence of virtually any screenplay effort at all—I'm especially fond of the frames-within-frames that foreshadow what will become of Aaron and Abe's friends, and the other frames-within-frames that define Aaron's marriage as effectively a helpmeet arrangement, by placing Aaron and Abe in one doorway and his wife in another, doing the dishes while the men talk shop. Meanwhile, a great many images are shockingly pretty in their borderline-documentary texture. I also appreciate that Carruth put one VFX shot in his film, apparently just to show he could. It appears on the screen of Aaron's camcorder, a cute little gesture that keeps it feeling utterly mysterious, rather than just chintzy.) This is also where a story that's honestly more twist than plot pays dividends, ultimately paring the conflict that develops down to little more than its archetype, cautious conservativism in Abe and the reckless pursuit of secret knowledge in Aaron, with both men on the verge of breakdown just by dint of the sheer physical strain of their exhausting method of traveling, that always costs them as much time as they steal.
It is not, unfortunately, Primer's best feature: it's a film that captures with great success the emotional process of unpeeling layer after layer of reality and being increasingly lost inside a maze of one's own creation, and captures with much less success the wherefores of the characters it pits against each other for control of the most important thing in the world. To some extent this even works, because of who those characters are, particularly Aaron—men who've been trained to believe they can master any problem with their rational minds, and can speak in terms of awe but don't necessarily feel awe; when Carruth's editing schemes emphasize process to a degree that it practically turns time travel into a mundane checklist, that uncanny feeling you get is the normal human reaction to men not treating this terrifying new reality with the fear it deserves—but for all that every time Primer evades straightforward explanation about what's happening it's an unvarnished strength of Carruth's story, it doesn't even really make an honest effort to explain why. We finally end up with Aaron putting an extraordinary amount of effort into righting a wrong that befell Abe's girlfriend, apparently mainly because Aaron has to put an extraordinary amount of work into something because otherwise there wouldn't be a plot, even though, with this particular something, it seems like Abe should have at least as much investment as him. (There is more than enough evidence in a tantalizing tertiary detail to suggest that Aaron has used the box to stop a very terrible thing from happening—indeed, the narration is more-or-less explicit that stopping it became an obsession for one or another of the various Aarons running around—and not one single blessed thing in Carruth's performance suggests anything like these kind of stakes have ever crossed any Aaron's minds.)
It's just about the only weakness (and not even much of one) in a film that otherwise nudges comfortably up against flawlessness, using the very scale of its production to sell maybe the most grounded, meticulous time travel story in cinema, and managing an almost hypnotic quality in its recursive, self-reflexive logic games. (Not to mention that ambiguous, but potentially downright apocalyptic, ending.) It's one of the great debuts, and to imagine that somebody pulled off a movie this good with just seven grand in what amounted to his backyard remains, sixteen years later, one of the most impressive achievements in film history, at least graded on that kind of curve.