BurtonMacReady’s review published on Letterboxd:
I had not seen PRIMER since I first saw it in high school back when it appeared on Netflix and immediately spread like wildfire. To wit, I have a distinct memory of going up to the hallway outside my bed room and bumping into my brother who had the room next door and him telling me I “gotta see it”, followed by a little later me telling a friend in his house after I did that he too has “gotta see it.” Like most my age, I understood very little of it and almost nothing from the big twist about an hour in onwards but something about its seemingly realistic sci-fi esotericism compelled me over its short runtime.
I not too long after found this webpage that explained the entire plot beat for beat as well as a very in-depth explanation of the time travel science itself. I promised myself one day I would rewatch it, read all of that webpage, and then rewatch it again. I never got around to it but when I saw this was playing as the second part of a Secret Movie Club double feature on original ultra-low-budget debuts with BELLFLOWER, a film I’d wanted to see since high school, I finally decided to execute my plan. Adding a layer was in the meantime the film’s creator Shane Carruth had, after years of being a well-known asshole so impossible to work with that it seemed he would never make his third feature, been accused of abusing his then-girlfriend director Amy Seimetz, and subsequently gone on a bizarre apparently drunken Twitter tirade where he more or less admitted to what he did, showed no remorse, and flippantly responded to random Twitter people. I believe in separating the art and the artist in terms of the former doesn’t need to be thrown out with the latter but I also believe that often in cases such as these the works need to be interpreted through the lens of real life to reveal itself.
I will say this time around, I had a greater understanding of why the film works so well while often being so impenetrable. I went in really wanting to figure out as much as possible and I would say I had a better overall grasp and even got that last section slightlyyyyyyy more than before (reading the much more pop novel Dark Matter by Blake Crouch in the interim helped…I think). But ultimately the film is so precisely made (all but one shot was done with one take) and it’s actors so sure in the technical dialogue they’re delivering that even if we don’t understand stuff on a basic level, we understand on another even baser one that it is making narrative sense. Add the film’s very distinct visual and auditory construction that both references and defies its DIY construction and it truly comes off as singular.
The double-edged sword is that Carruth purposefully makes the information obscured even beyond not dumbing down the science. I don’t have an issue with not bringing things below a doctorate in physics level but I kinda do with how scenes featuring crucial details will have muted audio covered by loud score and filmed from far away. On the one hand this helps gives the film its mysterious style but on the other it’s sort of cheating and is representative of the personal issue: Carruth’s desire to keep you at an arm’s length away to solidify him as smarter than you. There’s actually not much of the more serious issues with him, though a big motivation in this is a sense of machismo and possessiveness over their wives, but him as a cocky ass is all over it. When a major part of the time travel science is explained to him, Carruth’s character is spinning a basketball around and it’s almost like he’s directly stating it’s not enough for him to metaphorically ride a unicycle backwards; he has to metaphorically ride a unicycle backwards and spin a basketball in one hand and solve a rubix cube in the other just to show he can (and you can’t).
But despite the bumps this creates, it remains just this pretty indisputable unique and entertaining vision. Perhaps I’ll read that breakdown and understand more and this stuff won’t bother me or maybe I’ll understand it and it won’t make a difference or maybe I’ll just never understand it. But no matter what, I don’t think this will ever stop standing out in my mind.