Primal Fear (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One of the most unfortunate aspects of a courtroom thriller is the tendency to degenerate into preposterous melodrama. It's as if the basic situation of having a person on trial for their life isn't inherently powerful enough. As a result, cheap theatrics are thrown in to spice things up, and, in the process, wreck any semblance of credibility. Primal Fear, director Gregory Hoblit's adaptation of William Diehl's novel, is an obvious example. At times, it's taut, sharp, and astute, but those qualities are overwhelmed by a storyline that takes too many wrong turns.

The big "twist" at the end (which won't be much of a surprise to anyone who has seen more than a handful of courtroom thrillers) isn't the only thing that hurts Primal Fear, since nearly every scene in the last half-hour has something wrong with it. Although the film would like the audience to believe that it's addressing important issues about justice and court procedures, those things are mere window dressing for a tawdry plot that involves sex-obsessed archbishops, suspects with multiple personalities, and a corrupt prosecutor. We've seen all these things before in more cleverly-written screenplays.

One thing that Primal Fear does well, at least at the outset, is to present an uncompromising picture of a fast-talking, high-profile defense attorney. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) isn't in law because he believes in its purity or some equally naive drivel -- he's there because he likes the money, the power, and the spotlight. In his words, "Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people's lives?" When asked whether he has to believe in a client's innocence to present a defense, Vail retorts, "You don't know [whether he's guilty]. You don't ask. You don't care. You do the... job." He's jaded and callous, so it's disappointing when the film turns him into a crusader struggling with issues of conscience. This development doesn't make him three-dimensional; it makes him inconsistent and unfathomable.

The story centers around Vail's latest case -- he's defending a 19-year old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), who is accused of brutally murdering the beloved archbishop of Chicago. The headline-chasing Vail is taking the case pro bono for its publicity value. His opponent, prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), is Vail's ex-lover and ex-protege. Frankly, we could have done without all the out-of-court interaction between these two -- it's extraneous padding that expands the too-long running time.

Is Aaron guilty, or is he the victim of a frame-up? What dark secrets lurk in the archbishop's past? And how can the investigators in this case be so incredibly obtuse that they miss so many obvious things? Primal Fear tries to answer the first two questions. It doesn't care much about the third, and that's one of its problems.

Richard Gere does what Richard Gere has been doing in every film since his last real performance (in Sommersby) -- he looks dapper and executes his lines with workmanlike efficiency. Laura Linney, who recently appeared in Congo, is adequate in the largely thankless role of Vail's adversary. Despite their prominent billing, neither John Mahoney (as Janet's boss) nor Alfre Woodard (as the judge) is afforded significant exposure. The only actor who does anything memorable is Edward Norton, whose performance might remind viewers of Kevin Spacey's Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects.

Even had Primal Fear trimmed its length to something more reasonable, it still wouldn't have been involving. The flat, unsympathetic characters generate no interest and the overplotted story offers more cliches than legitimate surprises. Most of the film's better aspects, like Vail's cynicism about the judicial process, fall by the wayside to facilitate the absurd conclusion. Despite high production standards and a slick advertising campaign, Primal Fear is as trite and routine as any made-for-TV courtroom drama.

Primal Fear (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 1996-04-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1