Shane Carruth’s Unstable and Untrustworthy ‘Primer’

Shane Carruth’s Primer spins a gossamer thin notion into an increasingly creepy, too-smart-for-their-own-good boys’ story.

I knew that the story was going to be about these two guys who start off as friends and then by the end of it, because of the equation of trust changing, they weren’t going to be able to be around each other
— Shane Carruth, IndieWire

Winner of the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Primer combines multiple genres and multiple timeframes, built on a heady SF-ish concept that occasionally becomes plot. It does all this with four or five locations, only a few more speaking parts, at the cost of some $7k.

Written, directed, edited, shot, and produced by 31-year-old math grad and former engineer Shane Carruth, Primer spins a gossamer thin notion into an increasingly creepy, too-smart-for-their-own-good boys’ story. Aaron (Carruth) and his best friend Abe (production designer David Sullivan) are nerdish sorts, toiling in some nondescript engineering facility by day and concocting their own project in a garage, losing themselves for hours as they contemplate the details of dynomagnetism and the possibilities of time travel, by way of Richard Feynman.

Though they are briefly assisted in constructing their machine from a couple of other nondescript young men in shirtsleeves Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (co-cinematographer Anand Upadhyaya), the primary geeks are soon on their own, or rather, crowded out of their own singular existences by doubles. The build-up to their discovery, partly designed and partly a surprise, is full of hushed mutterings about computer chips and microwaves, rules and judgments, as the guys wonder at their progress, making their device out of pieces from refrigerators and scraps lifted from their workplace.

While Aaron’s wife Carrie (Carrie Crawford) takes up background space in the kitchen, he and Abe exchange serious-seeming, self-amazed glances. They can do this thing, whatever it is, and the language they use to describe it is not hers, not yours, but theirs. Abe and Aaron are firsts. Or so they think. Once they begin to muck about in time, they come up against the dangers of doubling, recursion, degeneration. It’s wild material, right now, but maybe not so in years to come.

And yet, for all their strangeness, the boys’ brainy breakthroughs and mechanical computations look strikingly mundane, shot on super 16mm and blown up to 35mm to evoke a grainy everydayness. But this visual strategy also exacerbates the drama: camera angles are tight and handheld, Aaron and Abe’s faces look pale and weary, as if they haven’t been sleeping. It’s as if the filmmaking itself has turned into a science experiment, devoid of the usual dramatic rises and falls, character evolutions, and appeals to viewer sympathy. These figures are flimsy and occasionally off-putting, their dialogue overlapping and elliptical, countering familiar narrative cues and so, in the film’s cleverest gambit, asking viewers to reconsider your own habits of linking temporal and emotional “meanings.” What are you looking for? Where is the sense you seek?

Eventually, the movie does get on with its story, that is, the repercussions of Abe and Aaron’s time travel. And this, even in sparse, low-budgeted, minimalism, brings problems of causality, embodiedness, and ethics. Soon the several selves are inhabiting alternate realities, and the film slips into a kind of moebius strip of plot, such that Abe and Aaron’s multiple relationships in and to time aren’t always entirely clear. Initially, they move back in time a few hours, but soon the film is moving back and forth across past, present, and what might be called a future, and only by increments. Smart and self-knowing, Primer continues to complicate rather than clarify any single trajectory.

As the action folds back into itself, Aaron and Abe ponder how best to maintain, contain, and exploit their extraordinary circumstance. Should they buy stock in a company they know will go up, bet on March Madness? How can they keep control of their multi-dimensionally changing relationships with others around them, wives and girlfriends and coworkers? And what about their own increasing interdependence and simultaneously eroding sense of trust?

They appear to have a rudimentary, Marty McFly-inspired understanding of the risks of running into themselves, as well as the ways that time and space are dreadfully and absolutely connected: when you move in space, you make time, in a sense, your movement provides a measure. And so they spend as much screen time devising how to stay out of sight when the doubles are loose on the world as they do concocting the device.

Aaron, who “goes through” first, you think, explains his method to Abe, who follows suit: they hang out in a motel room, playing cards and eating chips from vending machines, carefully denying themselves any media input, as this will color the consciousness of their second (and third and more) selves, and so affect their first selves. These first selves are step by step and understandably unhinged, unable to trust that they are themselves, that they are original. Though of course, they do know. You think. Soon, the differences between first and second become blurred, as another issue arises, concerning originality and duplication: how does one or another entity take precedence, become primary, or assume significance?

The film’s “science” sounds jargony and arcane enough to seem to make sense, but if this is the film’s initial draw, it’s soon lost to more regular emotional machinations — jealousy, anxiety, competition. A neighbor, Granger (Chip Carruth), appears to have followed them, copied them, or rather, made a similar machine that allows his movement through the temporal play loop. But at the same time — so to speak — their own actions, past and future, are changing their self-understandings, their fearfulness, and their connections with others; Abe, you find out late, has a girlfriend, Rachel (Samantha Thomson), Granger’s daughter and a point of contention.

The dilemma is endless, really. Just when and how the Rachel tensions develop is less important than their emergence in the film at a certain narrative point. For it’s then (if not before) that you see how this plot (indeed, plot per se) is at once arbitrary and ordained, arranged and nonsensical. The conventions that writers and readers hold so dear — cause and effect, individual identity, linear order — are revealed as articles of representational faith rather than necessity, matters of convention more than inevitable substance. This is a neat trick, for even as Primer‘s plot seems contrived, that is, arguably, the thematic point: stories are always unstable and untrustworthy.