What was that about protein?

When someone tells you, “It’s a movie about time travel,” certain implications and expectations are inherent.  A time machine!  Unbelievable science!  White-coated geeks!  Inevitable betrayal!  Perplexing paradoxes!

Shane Carruth’s $7000 cult sci-fi film is an exercise in subtlety.  All of the above can be checked off the list, but on a tiny budget, one has to come up with alternative ways of doing things.  At the outset of Primer, we are introduced to Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), two supposed geniuses sharing their workspace – the garage owned by Aaron and his wife – with a few other guys.  Throughout the film, the two are attired in plain white dress shirts and ties, the color of which changes depending on the day.  In a film determined to confuse its audience, you might think (as I did) the color of the ties would serve as a trail of breadcrumbs concerning what’s what in the timeline, but no such luck.

Carruth is a former engineer with a degree in mathematics, and as such, chooses not to water down the scientific jargon for the audience.  This is a bit of a writing no-no, and as Carruth certainly knows his film’s main audience will not be scientists, this tactic comes off not only as arrogant, but it tends to bore.  All we really need to know is that Aaron and Abe are attempting to build a machine that will reduce the weight of any object, and in doing so accidentally stumble upon time travel.  When they go back a day or so, their “double” from the past still exists, and they must avoid the double at all costs (though why is never explained).  At first, the pair mess with stocks and find ways to make money – things that would immediately come to mind for most normal middle-class folks given this opportunity – but with one thing and another, the friendship and time travel capabilities are abused.  Placed sparsely throughout the film is a phone conversation involving one or more of the “Aarons.”  Through their meddling, Abe and Aaron change nearly every aspect of their lives and are left with several complex problems.

As is tradition in documentary-style films (Bully, The Puffy Chair, SLICES, and so on) the performances are subtle and the conversations self-contained, as though the characters do not know (nor care) that they are being filmed.  Despite some sloppy editing and confusing, anti-climactic cuts after greatly suspenseful scenes, the film for the most part holds together, though it warrants an “if you’re into this sort of thing” label.  Do not go into this film expecting to be able to piece the puzzle together on a first viewing.

Carruth’s depiction of scientific discovery – by accident in an unglamorous location – is one of the more refreshing aspects of the film.  Although in retrospect, the sequence of events is not completely unclear, Carruth’s piecemeal storytelling and lack of concrete revelation are not likely to become a staple of the mainstream anytime soon.  That said, these folks seem to be happy right where they are.

Primer (2004); written and directed by Shane Carruth; starring Shane Carruth and David Sullivan