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
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
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