Primal Fear (1996)
Release Date: April 3rd, 1996 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gregory Hoblit Actors: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Terry O’Quinn, Andre Braugher
rimal Fear” is one of the most exhilarating and unpredictable of all modern legal thrillers. It boasts a breakthrough performance for a young Edward Norton (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and won the Golden Globe at the age of 27) and features exceptional roles for debonair Richard Gere and witchy Laura Linney. Suspenseful, complex, and unforgettable (with a finale that can’t be un-watched), it blends the courtroom drama of “…And Justice For All” or “The Verdict” with the excitement of “The Pelican Brief,” but also serves up it’s own unique twists that would inspire countless subsequent productions.
Hotshot Chicago criminal defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) loves soaking up the spotlight and taking on defendants typically associated with mobsters and lowlifes. Understandably, he’s viewed unfavorably by state attorneys and officials, who see him as worse than the thugs he represents. Although the money is more than nice, he feeds on the belief that everyone is essentially good. But his motives will be tested by his toughest challenge yet – a pro bono case defending a murder suspect caught fleeing from a gore-soaked church library and covered in plenty of incriminating blood.
With no witnesses, no other suspects, and an aggressive prosecutor (Laura Linney), Vail plays heavily on a lack of motive and a possible third person at the crime scene. Aaron Luke Stampler (Edward Norton), an abused altar boy, is accused of heinously murdering public figure Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson), stabbing him 78 times, gouging out his eyes, and carving numbers into his chest – correlating to a passage in a novel found in the Catholic man’s library. But Aaron has a history of blackout spells and can’t remember anything except waking up, smeared with blood. As Vail’s case starts coming unglued, political powers, ill-gotten evidence, and a surprising change in the stammering Aaron’s innocent, wide-eyed stare lead to judicial complexities and scandalous surprises.
Fueled with a dated ‘90s score and the enthralling, fleeting illusion of truth, “Primal Fear” dissects the goals of a courtroom and the evolution of a man convincing himself of his own noble purposes. It’s part trial procedural but mostly the unraveling of testimony and the realization of lies. It’s also an intense character study, delving into Martin’s often comedic, complicated romance with the prosecuting attorney, his good timing in court and his bad timing in real life, and allegations (in and out of the witness box) galore.
Supporting performances by Francis McDormand as a neuropsychologist, Andre Braugher as a comic relief assistant to Vail, and John Mahoney as a corrupt statesman are all exemplary, along with the show-stealing turn by Norton in his theatrical debut. Although several of the subplots could have been cut to increase the potency of Stampler’s condition and the influences by Rushman, “Primal Fear” is a winning picture that thickens the plot at a white-knuckle pace, going well beyond what is expected of a film about a presumably straightforward yet vicious crime and its analysis. It was also met with box office success and scores of favorable reviews.
– Mike Massie