Primal Fear (1996)

What can you expect from a legal thriller? Well, if you go by the John Grisham-genre standard, not much courtroom action at all. I enjoyed The Firm, The Pelican Brief (which not many people know is a sequel to All the President's Men with Denzel Washington in the Redford role and Julia Roberts in the Dustin Hoffman role), and The Client, but there is something distinctly anti-lawyer about them. Maybe it is because Grisham was fed up with lawyers during his career as one, maybe he is just matching the national mood. His heroes are always new to the legal system and forced through events to "take it on," of course, always triumphing in the end. The plots are tight and have explosions and fights and danger.

Not to complain too much, but Primal Fear is certainly not a well-plotted movie. The pacing, the acting, the mood, are all sustained, but the actual events of the story may leave you feeling used and a bit deceived yourself. The ending is such that I hesitate to call it a "thriller," but I think in the end the hokey final moments are not enough to spoil what turns out to be a quite entertaining ride.

Primal Fear is a different kind of thriller. There is very little idealism except that which is actually generated during the film. That is, instead of a hero on a white horse in the Tom Cruise/Julia Roberts/Susan Sarandon role, we have Richard Gere, steeped in corruption from the beginning, not innocent of the ways in which justice is administered, who somehow finds a way to redeem himself. Most of the action takes place between two people in small, enclosed spaces, or in the courtroom. Somehow, director Gregory Hoblit manages to sustain the audience's interest anyhow, often stunningly.

A lot of the criticism of Richard Gere is that he always plays the same character. He is basically a "hair actor" like Michael Douglas--once you see his hairstyle, you know all the intricacies of his character. I disagree with this assessment of Gere. Anyone who has seen Mike Figgis's Internal Affairs knows that Gere is capable of real depth. And yet, in First Knight, Sommersby, Pretty Woman, and others, Gere has only given us blandly good-looking heroes without a trace of realism. Which is odd, because when Gere is good, he is pretty damn good. In Primal Fear, he is pretty damn good.

His character is Martin Vail, a defense attorney who sees a shot at the really big time when an altar boy is accused of killing the archbishop of Chicago. He offers to defend the accused killer, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), pro bono. This involves him in an actually not very complicated web of intrigue and deceit which gradually unwinds itself.

The fun of the film is all in the rhythm and the interaction of the characters. Unfortunately, even with a high-powered cast including Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Andre Braugher, John Mahoney, and Maura Tierney, there are really only two characters in Primal Fear: Gere's Vail and first-time film actor Norton's Stampler. So they have to sustain a lot. Fortunately, both are up to the task.

Gere plays Vail as a character who acts completely despicably, always scrambling for advantage. And he enjoys being as slick as he is. And yet, there is an underlying optimism, if not idealism, that give the portrayal depth. This performance is really very well modulated and manages to capture something about Vail that makes you believe in him.

And as Gere said of Edward Norton, he "is emerging as one of the monster actors of our time." After only one film? Yep. Without giving away too much of the plot, the demands of the character of Aaron Stampler are extraordinary. Yet, even though you can see the cliched ending coming a mile away, you still believe absolutely in Aaron Stampler. Without Norton, the movie wouldn't even sustain itself as long as it does. Essentially, Norton found himself, as an actor, having to play a character who is a great actor. The sophistication and layers of his performance suggest that he is already miles ahead of most first-time actors, and promise a great career ahead of him. It is very early for Oscar talk, but I think it is not overstepping to say that so far, Norton has given one of the strongest supporting performances of the year.

Overall, there is something about Primal Fear that is a bit too easy, a bit too shadily manipulative--but leaving the theater, you are not that upset about it. You have seen, after all, some great actors playing some pretty good roles with absolutely perfect pitch. And you even kind of get sucked in to the story, even though you know you probably shouldn't.

As an old guy coming out of the theater where I work said after seeing the film, "I don't trust you; I don't trust nobody."

Links for Primal Fear

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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