Thrifty Travel (Smith Film Column)

Kyle Smith

Film critic Anthony Lane once described Robert Bresson’s prison drama “A Man Escaped” as something akin to a cinematic miracle.

Personally I can think of no better movie miracle than Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” opening tomorrow at Century 12 Evanston. “Primer” took top honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and unlike the star-studded, watered-down Grand Jury Prize winners of the past (“Personal Velocity,” “The Believer,” “You Can Count On Me”), “Primer” doesn’t suck.

Carruth, who majored in math and worked as a software engineer before becoming a filmmaker, wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited, starred in and shot the film. The end credits list a total of six people crewing, plus Carruth’s parents catering. He shot the movie on Super 16 film for less than $7,000 back in 2001, then spent two years editing on his Mac.

This price tag instantly evokes Robert Rodriguez’s crowd-pleasing “El Mariachi,” made for $7,000 in 1992. The thing is, “El Mariachi” was a conventional genre film substantially cleaned up and improved after its success at Sundance. Also, “El Mariachi” looks like it cost $7,000, despite Rodriguez’s gifted editing and the subtitles that mask the awful dialogue.

I’m going to venture a claim that “Primer” is so revolutionary it develops an entirely new film language, at once decrying the advent of digital video and, paradoxically, maximizing the tools available to any doofus with a computer.

The movie stars Carruth and a terrific David Sullivan as young engineers who work lame jobs in an unnamed sector of suburban sprawl by day and work on what they call “projects” by night. Eventually, with pieces from home appliances, they build “the box,” which the film dances around confusingly until finally admitting that it’s a time machine.

This is no DeLorean or wormhole, and the time travel is entirely plausible — a mixture of “A Sound of Thunder” causality and “Back to the Future” righteousness. Better yet, Carruth and Sullivan are more “Office Space” zombies than freewheeling time travelers — in a simple stroke typical of the film’s unpretentious brilliance, they are never seen without wrinkle-free shirts and bland ties. As Carruth puts it, “These guys, they’re technical experts, but ethically, they’re kids.” “The box” promises instant riches but also the usual multitude of existential and moral problems.

That’s all I’ll say — and all I really can say for certain. “Primer” is one of those movies where information and exposition unfold in an ambiguous way that makes the viewer nervous rather than confusing them. Think a more toned-down version of “Mulholland Drive” or a more interesting “Memento.” “Primer” shamelessly messes with its audience, never manipulating us but infuriating us in a masterful mindfuck.

I met with Carruth while he was in town promoting the film at the Chicago International Film Festival, and he was as unassuming as I expected. I asked him if he had any advice for someone making a movie for $7,000: “Don’t do it.” Anything you’d do differently? “I’d be more inspiring … and I’d have gotten more money.” Did it really cost $7,000? “It has not been touched (since Sundance). And what was shown at Sundance is exactly what was on my computer.”

At no point does “Primer” feel like guerrilla filmmaking. It never feels amateurish, but it’s not trying to look professional either. “Primer” completely transcends its ballyhooed budget. It isn’t the animalistic filmmaking of Rodriguez or pretentious slop of the latest DV hit; “Primer” is the product of a mentality melding traditional cinematic themes with modern attitude, both in its production and subject matter.

Besides the subtle, affecting acting, epitomized by the characters’ nervous, hushed voices, there are beautiful sets and unnerving sound design — and a few sequences of virtuoso filmmaking, among them Sullivan’s stunning voice over account of his first trip in the box. The drama in this scene, and throughout the film, is so well-constructed and intense it becomes downright thrilling — even scary. The implications of “Primer” are some of the more terrifying to grace screens since “Arlington Road.”

“Primer” also is insanely technical, filled with science jargon justifying time travel that turns into a strange textbook poetry. It adds up to the most realistic depiction of time travel I’ve seen, which is pretty remarkable, since time travel is about the coolest thing ever. Maybe that’s what ultimately makes “Primer” so unforgettable — it finally satisfies that childhood obsession with time travel through the tinted lens of an adult. “I’m trying to figure out how people can do bad things and not be a bad person,” Carruth said.

I’d be content to just figure out his movie.4

Weinberg junior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]