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Primal Fear

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Primal Fear

Starring: Richard Gere, Laura Linney
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rated: R
RunTime: 130 Minutes
Release Date: April 1996
Genres: Drama, Mystery, Suspense

*Also starring: John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Andre Braugher, Terry O'Quinn, Steven Bauer, Joe Spano, Tony Plana

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

PRIMAL FEAR is an excellent whodunit full of lots of plot twists and surprises. Some things you think are clearly so, aren't; whereas other obvious facts are actually true. The script by Ann Biderman and Steve Shagan and based on the novel by William Diehl is like the maze at a fun house. Some paths seem to work and do whereas others you think you see clearly but don't. Other than the great plot, there are two outstanding performances by Edward Norton and Richard Gere. All of this notwithstanding, the movie, because of the direction by Gregory Hoblit, is less than the sum of its parts and overall is not near as good a movie as it could have been or should have been.

As the movie starts, rich and famous lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is explaining his legal philosophy to a reporter who is writing an article on Vail's techniques. Vail tells him, "If your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion." Vail helps out little guys too. One of these, Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer from THIEF OF HEARTS), has Vail worried he will be murdered by some important people in the corrupt Chicago city government, but Joey tells him not to be concerned since, "How are they going to kill a man who never sleeps?"

Soon the big crime happens. In a gory scene the beloved Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) is stabbed and murdered in his bedroom. From the house the police chase Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton). His clothes are covered in blood and the TV news covers the chase live from their helicopters. Vail sees the TV coverage and decides he will try the case pro bono for Stampler. Stampler is surprised but agrees.

Vail reads Stampler the riot act on how to behave in court telling him, "I don't have to believe you. I don't care if you are innocent. I'm your mother, your father, your priest." He goes on to order him, "I speak. You do not speak. All you do is sit there and look innocent." He better look innocent and Vail better be a brilliant attorney because it looks like an open and shut case if there ever was one.

The prosecutor is Vail's old flame Janet Venable (Laura Linney). Linney's performance as his ex-girlfriend works, but she is not convincing as a prosecutor. She should have spent some time watching Marcia Clark tapes. As the defense's psychiatrist, Dr. Molly Arrington, is the wonderful lead from FARGO Frances McDormand. Certainly not her best work, but well done.

As the trial goes on, Vail periodically talks more with the magazine reporter. Vail tells him, "I chose to believe in the basic goodness of people. Some basically good people do some very bad things." When he hits a low point in the trial he tells him, "You been saving up for a rainy day? Guess what it's raining."

What I have told you thus far, just sets up the situation. I will not reveal more. In fact Gere demanded that critics seeing the film early sign a contract not to reveal the ending. I will not reveal it other than to say I did not guess it, and, moreover, I thought it was the best part of the movie. So if you hate the movie, don't leave early and miss the best part.

Besides the already mentioned actors, John Mahoney is good as a slimeball political boss and ex-lead prosecutor named John Shaughnessy. For some reason Alfre Woodard gives a performance totally on autopilot as Judge Miriam Shoat. She acts like she is just there to read her lines, and they should have paided her extra if they wanted her to put in any feeling.

Gere gives one of his best performances ever. Only in MR. JONES, which most people have never seen, but should, do I remember him doing better. He is so suave at first. Watch little things like the confident way to sits in a chair or conducts an interview. Later as the trial is not going well, he is vulnerable and despondent. Even better than Gere's, is Norton's performance, which I expect to get him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He is frighten, naive, respectful, and many other less obvious characteristics all at once.

The film has strong editing by David Rosenbloom. Notice the way he cuts back and forth in a scene to create a seamless feeling of tension. Each frame builds on the other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The music by James Newton Howard is bold and dramatic.

With few exceptions the components of a great thriller and courtroom drama are in place, and yet, the director came up short. Although I liked what I saw, the picture is frequently not believable enough. The director has his actors too removed. They do not engage the audience and pull them into the drama to the extent they should. In the right hands, this material could have been made into a **** film. Two outstanding performances and a terrific plot. Don't get me wrong; as done, this is an excellent movie, but I wish it had lived up to its potential.

PRIMAL FEAR runs 2:10 but doesn't feel long at all. It is rated R for one gory scene with lots of pictures of it to see later, a little sex and brief nudity. I think the film would be fine for teenagers. I recommend the picture and give it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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