Great Films You Need To See – Primer (2004)

We’ve all wished at least once in our lives for the opportunity to go back and do things differently.

Shane Carruth's Primer

Shane Carruth’s Primer – “a film that puts the science into science fiction and is quite possibly the last word in time travel”

We have to contend ourselves with the fact that hindsight  is all we have, but in the movies where anything is possible, that wish can be fulfilled.

The gift that keeps on giving when put in the right hands, time travel has provided the backdrop to lots of great motion pictures over the years, most recently Rian Johnson’s action flick Looper.

Movies like Looper and the Back to the Future and Terminator franchises use the concept of time travel as the springboard to a popcorn-fuelled rollercoaster ride. On the flip side we have Shane Carruth’s serious, occasionally impenetrable but always absorbing Primer, a film that puts the science into science fiction and is quite possibly the last word in time travel.

The mode of time travel used in Primer (pic taken from the film's Wikipedia page)

The mode of time travel used in Primer (pic taken from the film’s Wikipedia page)

Made for just $7,000 and released to award-winning acclaim at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Carruth’s debut feature remains as much of an enigma today as it did when it first left critics and moviegoers scratching their heads almost 10 years ago.

At its heart a cautionary tale about the dangers of possessing ingenuity and an insatiable curiosity, Primer concerns itself with Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), white-collar engineers by day and amateur inventors by night who stumble on a means of time travel.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) with their time travel boxes in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) with their time travel boxes in Primer

Primer is as far removed from big budget bombast as you can get. Aaron and Abe work from a suburban garage, while the device itself is nothing more than a box (no DeLoreans here), hidden away in a self storage lock-up. Carruth frequently shoots his characters in long shot, as if he’s eavesdropping on their rapid-fire, tech-heavy dialogue and this is reflected in the actions of Aaron and Abe, who coolly observe events around them from a safe distance.

Described by Abe as “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed”, the pair are nervous at first, unsure of how best to proceed with their momentous invention. However, it doesn’t take long before greed and ambition take over and their “reverse engineering” of the past gets out of control.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) can't quite believe who he's warching in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) can’t quite believe who he’s watching in Primer

The film’s tagline – ‘what happens if it actually works?’ – speaks to Carruth’s documentary-style approach while the decision to film on grainy 16mm, financial constraints not withstanding (this was before digital had become all-pervasive), lends a matter-of-fact realism.

The director (who also wrote, produced, edited and wrote the music for the film) cleverly shows how even the extraordinary can become routine with lines such as “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten until later this afternoon”, and “I think my body’s getting used to the 36-hour days”.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) wonder where to go next in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) wonder where to go next in Primer

Primer‘s cerebral, scientific approach to time travel will certainly infuriate many and leave most others discombobulated. Carruth makes no concessions to his audience and what little action there is centres on the two tech heads talking excitedly among themselves whilst tweaking a large metal box.

That being said, like most time travel films it largely avoids dealing with the thorny issues of causality and paradox (Looper, for example, jokingly shrugs it off by having Bruce Willis’ Old Joe Simmons refusing to talk about it to his younger self (Joseph Gordon Levitt) because they’d end up spending hours “drawing diagrams with straws”). Aaron refers to the age-old question of whether you’d exist if you went back in time and killed your mother before shrugging it off and stating that “it has to work itself out somehow”.

Primer is a¬† fascinating puzzle that expects you to keep up (the final 20 minutes are almost maddening in their complexity). Those looking for crazy-haired scientists, killer robots or cool time machines are barking up the wrong tree here, but give yourself in to Carruth’s unique vision and it’s sure to stick in the mind long into the future.

Review – The Sessions

The human spirit is a quite remarkable thing; our innate ability to overcome great obstacles and keep smiling in the face of tragedy sets us apart.

Our greatest inspiration is often found from those with disabilities who overcome significant obstacles to achieve things they and we never thought possible.

The Sessions – “uplifting cinema without the schmaltz”

Acclaimed poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was paralyzed from the neck down as a child after contracting polio and as a result was forced to spend the vast majority of each day confined to an iron lung to help with his breathing. Whilst interviewing other disabled people about how they found having and enjoying sex, Mark came to fervently envy them and became determined to lose his virginity.

This is the set-up for Ben Lewin’s warmly touching true-life drama based on Mark’s physical and spiritual adventure and the impact it and he had on those around him. A committed Catholic, Mark (played by John Hawkes) first consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about the theological quandary this poses. Taking into account Mark’s circumstances, he concludes the Almighty would in all likelihood give him “a free pass on this one”.

The stage is set for Mark to hire professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). At first his fear and awkwardness is palpable, but as their sessions continue a tender bond develops between the two.

It’s a stone-cold fact that disability sells when it comes to awards season and it’s likely The Sessions will be recognised in the same way as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump before it.

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) employs the services of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions

That being said, not a cynical bone exists in the picture’s body. The largely excellent cast see to that, pulling back when histrionics could be reached for or emotional heartstrings pulled.

Given her strongest role in years, Hunt excels. It’s a brave, utterly believable performance of a person who comes to re-evaluate herself the closer she gets to Mark, whose article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate the film is based on.

After scaring the bejesus out of us with quietly menacing portraits of a drug-addicted killer and cult leader in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene respectively, Hawkes pulls a complete about-turn here as a man who gradually realises there’s nothing to be gained from punishing yourself for reasons beyond your control. His bright optimism hides a what-would-Jesus-say guilt and fear that erodes over time as he becomes more comfortable in his own skin.

Father (William H Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

Father Brendan (William H. Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

In addition, Macy is on fine form as the sincere priest who forms a genuine friendship with Mark, while Moon Bloodgood’s poker face portrayal of Mark’s carer Vera nicely contrasts his heart-on-sleeve demeanour.

The warm hues used by Lewin (a polio survivor himself) reflect the cosy nature of the film, while Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack stays the right side of manipulative.

In many ways Mark’s preoccupations with sex, fear and religion are no different to many sections of American society, and while Lewin ultimately sides with the sexually liberated Cheryl’s mantra that we should “stop thinking about it so much” he never once pokes fun at Mark’s hang-ups.

The kind of film where a smile and a tear are never too far away from each other, The Sessions is uplifting cinema without the schmaltz and for that it should be congratulated.