By Hank Strickler
Hollywood’s great filmmakers often have fascinating debut projects. First works are an auteur’s style laid bare; generally unobstructed by mainstream studio pressure or massive box office expectations. Reservoir Dogs might not be your favorite Tarantino flick, but his knack for making pedestrian conversations essential is unavoidable without the sheen of tens of millions of dollars of visual styling. Blood Simple established the Coen Brother’s preference for obtuse, chaotic plots following a vein of thematic consistency if not always logical reliability. The Room probably explains something about Tommy Wiseau; maybe that regularly adding ketamine to your morning coffee is not a sustainable lifestyle, but no one’s really sure about that yet. Primer, maybe one of the most extraordinary debuts in recent history says a lot about its director, Shane Carruth; most notably that he’s a filmmaker who isn’t a legend yet, but soon will be.
Dollar for dollar, Primer will keep you up at night more than any other movie ever made
Understanding Shane Carruth requires a thorough grounding of his infamous first flick. Primer is a time-travel movie, released in 2004, and known as much for its complexity (illustrated by the web-comic xkcd here: https://xkcd.com/657/) as the strength of its two leads, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth). On a notoriously frugal budget of $7,000, Carruth crafted a subtle film which rises in intricacy at an exponential rate with each use of an enigmatic time machine simply referred to as “the box”.
The technical intensity of Primer’s dialogue, which arises from Carruth’s past as a mathematics major and engineer, will mystify most viewers. However, looking past the science babble, there is a simple intensity pervading every character interaction as our protagonists slowly realize the menace of their situation. On his first try, Carruth crafted the kind of screenplay many writers dream of. No word is wasted, each line carrying the plot forward as well as teaching us about our characters a little more.
Primer challenges its viewers. A lot. More than whatever movie you’re thinking of. But this difficulty is not a gimmick to make it stand out or some self-indulgent eccentricity from Carruth. Simplifying concepts to fit into a familiar mold can make for some fun turns of plot (looking at you 12 Monkeys) but facing the philosophical implications of what it means to move in time is impossible if the story is dumbed down. If nothing else, Primer will make you think.
Despite this complexity and a total lack of visual effects due to small budget—I’ll say it again, $7,000!—Primer earned roughly $850,000. It found a place in the hearts of engineering majors and film nerds everywhere. For years, Primer seemed certain to languish in cinema history as a one-off that slipped under the Hollywood radar. However, in 2013, Carruth premiered his next work Upstream Color at Sundance. Made on an only slightly less paltry budget of $50,000, it garnered near-universal praise from critics for its near-hallucinogenic visuals and a highly experimental story.
Unfortunately, it too failed to claim a big return. Upstream Color, was, in many ways, just as tricky as Primer without any of the neat classifications. Primer is two friends dealing with a time travel machine. Upstream Color is two people united by shared visions from the involuntary ingestion of hallucinogenic tapeworms which are eventually stolen and transferred to pig bodies. Then it gets weird. An excellent film, but not made for mass appeal.
The one clear link between his movies is the strength of and devotion to the scripts. For all the technicalities of Primer and the straight-up weirdness of Upstream Color, they are brilliant films. They stand out for their unique plot and audacious approaches to character development. When many movies are spoon-feeding viewers plot points, Carruth’s films ask audiences to shoulder more of the burden. Carruth was uncompromising in his visions for both films, and recently, this steadiness has paid off.
In 2015, he announced he was at work on The Modern Ocean, a much bigger project with an ensemble cast and stars including Keanu Reeves, Anne Hathaway, Tom Holland, and Daniel Radcliffe. No word yet on plot specifics; but the movie is set at sea, and Carruth has indicated the scope of the movie is similarly massive.
Regardless of the outcome of this large new endeavor, Shane Carruth has undeniably earned a spot as a working writer/director, and his status is only likely to increase. David Fincher, David Lynch, and Stephen Soderbergh have all publicly praised his work as much for its boldness as anything else. When “Expanded Cinematic Universes” are everything, that’s a huge victory, not just for Carruth, but for independent filmmakers everywhere.
So many movies are promoted or denied funding based on monetary viability. Gaining entry to the mainstream filmmaking world based purely on quality is extremely difficult, but that has what happened in this case. Shane Carruth’s pursuit of stark visions for his films and unwillingness to bend to the entrenched will of the Hollywood system has paid dividends. Hopefully, his new project will succeed, and other similarly-inclined indie filmmakers will get opportunities to bring new perspectives to the medium.
Hank Strickler is a ShowPup contributing author.