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(2004) *** Pg-13
82 min. ThinkFilm. Director: Shane Carruth. Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan (IV), Casey Gordon, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford.

Shane Carruth's head-spinning Primer opens from outside, looking into, a suburban garage. Inside, men in ties chattily conduct experiments in anti-gravity technology while dreaming silently of the financial windfall of their planned breakthrough. The garage's windows, all in a row, conjure the sprockets on a piece of film, and indeed, Carruth's feature debut serves as an experiment in form and function. When Carruth's young heroes discover something mind-blowing, and entirely by accident, the brain-teasing narrative results defy definitive conclusion on the basis of one viewing.

The cynical-minded critic might add, "The better to encourage repeat business, my dear," but Carruth's worthy entry in the Blair Witch Project/Pi sweepstakes is inordinately clever in making the most of modest resources. Primer is cinematic science-fiction with unparalleled restraint and a keen ability to sustain a mood. Once best friends Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) stumble onto paydirt, Carruth's narrator drily notes their "slow realization: that they were out of their depth." What follows involves complex, non-linear plotting and an increasingly unsettling mood enhanced by the naturalistic use of overlapping dialogue and uninflected speech patterns.

The elemental nature of their discovery, symbolized in part by a wobbling egg knick-knack, belies its attendant moral concerns. Carruth raises the spectre of scientific responsibility but also personal moral choice on the part of the selfish scientists. Bonded by their secret, Abe and Aaron look out for each other, but also share deep-seated doubts about the appropriate use of the technology. Each comes to question whether or not the other will appropriately wield the newfound power. Hence, the question "What's worse: thinking you're paranoid or knowing you should be?" takes on not only theoretical but personal import.

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