Primal Fear (1996)
User ReviewsReview this title
Laura Linney deserves extra credit for often being the ice-queen foil which propels the two male characters' development; her own character is rather one- dimensional, but she herself squeezes as much dazzle as she can from it. Even though everyone else obviously falls for whatever Gere's Vail purrs into their ears, it's merely enough time for Linney's Janet to get a drag on her ubiquitous cigarette; another step in what will (hopefully) someday be film's love affair with her. Wasted, sadly, are fine character actors like John Mahoney, Steven Bauer, Maura Tierney & Andre Braugher who could have lit up the screen had they not been handed scripts with generic character stereotypes.
See it to watch the ascension of Norton and Gere.
RICHARD GERE seemed to specialize in playing these kind of low-down heels (typecasting does have its perils), and LAURA LINNEY as the prosecuting lawyer has her hands full trying to play a game of one-upmanship against him during an intense courtroom trial.
The story ends on a chilling note, thanks largely to the clever, intense and totally convincing performance ED NORTON gives in his film debut. As the guy who seems to have a devious split personality driving him to do bad things, he's the kind of actor who makes the audience sit up and take notice of his abrupt mood changes. It's no wonder he pulls the wool over so many eyes.
Having said that, it's the climax of the film that is most stunning and brings the story to a totally unexpected conclusion. It's the kind of chilling twist that only the most clever scriptwriters can devise and make seem probable--but it succeeds here.
Summing up: The kind of film you'll want to revisit once you know the whole score. Gere, Linney and Norton deserve high praise.
But as to Gere he plays Martin Vail, a top criminal defense attorney who will let everyone know it if they haven't figured it out. It's a tricky part because a guy this arrogant has to maintain some kind of surface likability or else you'd never believe he'd ever win a case in front of a jury. As for movie viewers they must have a rooting interest for him as well. But Gere's definitely a guy who they make lawyer jokes about.
A young altar boy has murdered the archbishop of Chicago, a mush mouth kid with a Kentucky twang played by Edward Norton. He's part of a choir of street kids that the Chicago archdiocese shows off on many an occasion. It was a particularly brutal murder, multiple stabbings and the carving of a cryptic message in the chest of the deceased.
Gere makes no bones about it, he's wanting this case because of the headlines it will bring him. But when F. Lee Bailey or Johnnie Cochran offers to defend you for nothing, you don't ask questions.
Which brings us to Norton who has you might have gathered is not all he seems. He's a street kid and he's used to getting over on people himself. It's one of the darkest characters ever done on screen, maybe a bit too dark for Academy tastes. That might have been the reason that Cuba Gooding beat out Norton for Best Supporting Actor with his much lighter role in Jerry Maguire.
One in this film you will notice are Laura Linney as the Assistant District Attorney who Gere was once involved with and is getting a lot of pressure to bring in a guilty verdict for understandable political reasons. I also liked Alfre Woodard as the very patient judge at Norton's trial and Frances McDormand as the psychiatrist who examines Norton.
If you think you've figured out what's behind Primal Fear, rest assured you haven't from this description. Let's just say everyone gets good and played here.
Which brings to mind the dedication for this review. Gere's attorney character is likable, but arrogant. Back in the day I knew an attorney who was arrogant without any real reason for the arrogance. He'd love to have been Richard Gere, I'm sure he saw himself that way. So to you Ron D'Angelo this review is dedicated to.
Even though I'm not really a fan of Richard Gere (I'm not a woman, so no I don't like him because the way he looks, I only look at his acting), I have to admit that this time he really did a very good job as the slick, media-friendly, arrogant lawyer Martin Vail. Still, in my opinion the real star in this movie is Edward Norton. He's really excellent as the altar boy who is accused of murdering a Catholic bishop.
For once the story isn't as predictable as usual. At first the case seems rather clear: an altar boy is running away from the home of the bishop, with blood all over his clothes. No doubt about it you think, he did it, case closed, next movie! But than the first interesting twist in the movie appears: Yes, he was at the murder scene, but he can't remember anything about the grisly murder, because at that exact moment he got a blackout. He's convinced that there was a third person in the room. That third person must have killed the bishop, he's innocent. His lawyer tries to prove the third man theory in the court room, but as the process comes nearer to the end, some new evidence will make everything a lot clearer and more interesting...
As I already said, this movie is more than just worth a watch, thanks to the rather innovative story line and characters. For once, this movie didn't annoy me more than I could ever like it. That's already worth a lot, so I give it a well deserved 8/10.
When Arch Bishop Rushmen is murdered in his office, a young parishioner, Aaron Stampler, is found running from the scene covered in blood. The police follow him to a train yard where he is eventually arrested. When Stampler, expertly played by Edward Norton, is captured by the police he is obviously terrified, unexpectedly meek, and can't make eye contact. Stampler's prominent stutter and introverted personality make his guilt difficult to digest.
Richard Gere's character, the smarmy defense attorney Richard Vail, sees the capture on the local news and decides to represent Stampler pro-bono for the publicity. He leaves his cover page interview to get to Stampler's cell before any other defense attorney does. The first half of the movie plays like a thrilling murder trial drama. District Attorney, Janet Venable, played by Laura Linney, tirelessly and doggedly pursues Stampler. Evidence is covertly and excitingly collected. Light is shined on different aspects of the case by both the DA and the defense attorney.
Vail tracks down another alter boy who tells him the sins of the Arch Diocese and that he taped them. Vail gets the video and it rocks the case from a simple church slaying to a complicated case of blame the victim. This is only one of the first masterfully written plot turns that keeps you on the edge of your seat and unable to truly grasp the situation fully.
Vail orders a psychological evolution for Stampler. The interview brings to surface a Stampler's mental illness. When Stampler's mental illness (I won't ruin it for you) is revealed to his psychologist, it is horrifying and rocks the viewer with an unexpected jolt. His guilt or innocence is no longer easy to figure out and isn't a case of black or white. The rest of the courtroom drama rests on your perception of the guilt or innocence of Aaron Stampler.
Courtroom drama isn't the only drama. Interrelated to the case there is a subplot about rich business men, murder, church corruption and mobsters. Yeah, it could go downhill fast and sounds cheeseball but it works. The subplot gives Vail motivation for passionately defending his client.
Richard Gere flawlessly plays the grandiloquent Vail. Vail must believe, disbelieve, question, and wonder about Stampler's guilt. Even so, Gere's acting never misses the mark. He gives new meaning to smarmy and surprise. Even so, his acting is far outshined by Edward Norton's disturbing performance.
Edward Norton's character ranges from pitiful to downright scary. The challenge of Norton's character is portraying a man who might be guilty but making it so hard to conceive that your mind can't get around it. Portraying a person with the mental illness (I'm still not going to tell you) Stampler has is extremely difficult to do with out turning the part into a poltergeistic mess but Norton leaves you with your mouth hanging open, unable to speak. It is no wonder that Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for this role.
Gregory Hoblit's direction is worthy of applause. The fragile nature of all the relationships is a thread he had to walk like a tightrope. Each actor's performance would have devastated the film if it were over or underacted. Still, Hoblit was able to get passion and coldness at the exact level the character, the relationships and the film required. It was as if he wanted his direction to cook the perfect omelet. Too long in the pan and it's rubber, too short and it's soupy, just right and it's breakfast.
This film is an exceptional work of cinematic art. Every character is multi-dimensional, perfectly written and wonderfully acted. I could watch this movie over and over again and it doesn't lose a thing.
PRIMAL FEAR - 8.1 OUT 10
FOR NOW THIS IS THE SHADOWMAN, WISHING YOU GOOD LUCK AND GOODNIGHT !
"Primal Fear" is really one of those movies that has a good story that builds up the suspense level with acting and directing and delivers a shocking ending. The film climax not only stuns the audience but makes total sense and doesn't take away anything from the story that you saw up to that point when it hits you. Where as "The Usual Suspects" surprise ending seems totally contrived and completely negates the story that you were seeing up to the part that you were hit by it that the movie plot that you were watching becomes utterly senseless.
Marty Vail, Richard Gere, is one of Chicago's top defense attorneys who likes to take on high-profile cases for a hefty fee or Pro-Bono as long as it gets him publicity and embellishes his already envious reputation. Marty also believes that everybody no matter how repulsive their crime, which there accused of deserves to be defended to the utmost of his ability. One morning in a bar watching the TV Vail sees a live news report of the police chasing down a young man who is reported to have murdered a very powerful and popular man from the Catholic Church Archbishop Richard Rushman, Stanley Anderson.
Smelling publicity in defending that person, if he's not killed by the police or ends up killing himself, Vail uses his connections to get on the case defending him. At the jail-house talking to the young man Aaron Stampler, Edward Norton, he finds out that he's a 19 year-old altar boy at the church that the Archbishop was in charge of. Stampler tells him that he blacked out, lost time as he puts it, when he came into the Archbishops office when he heard that there was someone else there. Stampler blacked out but when he woke up from his unconscious state he found himself covered with blood and the Archbishop was dead! Seeing that he just panicked and ran.
The state wants the death penalty for Stampler and assigned to prosecute the case Janet Venable, Laura Linney, who once had an affair with Marty Vail and is very surprised that Vail is handling the case for Stampler's defense. Before he's to go on trial when Stampler is examined by a defense paid psychiatrist Dr. Molly Arrington, Frances McDormand. It's then discovered that he has a split personality and is not in control of himself when his other self takes over his mind and he becomes "Roy", a completely different and violent person! Marty Vail later also finds this out the hard and brutal way about Stampler's condition by being banged around by "Roy".
It's determined by Dr. Arrington that Sampler is a very sick person and should get help in a mental hospital not in a prison but since the trial is already on Vail can't change the plea from not guilty to innocent by reason of insanity. Vail later finds out that Stampler was sexually abused by the Archbishop by tracking down a video tape with the Archbishop having Stampler and other altar boys and girls engage in sexual activities while he watched. The tape would not only be very embarrassing to the church but to a lot of high powerful people in the city and state government if it were released.
Vail sends a copy of the tape to the prosecutor, Miss. Venable, so it would force her to use it at the trial. At the trial State Prosecutor Venable has the tape played,to the total shock of those in the courtroom, to show that Stampler had cause and reason to murder the Archbishop. Just as Vail expected, by releasing the tape to Venable, the case starts to backfire against her. It's then when Vail puts Aaron Stampler on the stand to be cross-examined by Miss. Venable who aggressive and belligerently questions him on the archbishops murder he goes completely berserk. "Roy" takes over Aaron's mind and attacks Miss. Venable and almost ends up breaking her neck. Everybody decides, the Judge as well as the prosecution, that Stampler is insane and not responsible for his actions and drops the murder case against him. I's agreed that he needs to be in a mental hospital and not in a state prison ;but the story is not over for the movies shocking and surprising ending is just about to happen.
One of the best crime/court dramas ever made with outstanding performances by, of course, Edward Norton, Richard Gere, Laura Linney and everyone else involved with the acting in the movie. Don't miss seeing it you won't be disappointed, you'll be rewarded with one of the best crime/court dramas and surprise ending movies of all time.
That being said, it is beyond me why Primal Fear never made it to more people's "best" or "greatest" lists. It has received positive ratings on this website, but overall the movie enjoyed very quiet success. This movie is spectacular from start to finish. The ending is a doozy and Edward Norton's performance is Oscar worthy. Not only did his performance blind side me (who the hell is this guy?), but it was also a sign of great things to come from Edward Norton. He is one of our greatest actors.
The plot, an altar boy is accused of murdering a priest who as it turns out was molesting him, seems even more relevant 10 years later than it did in 1996. That is the basic plot, but there are so many subplots and side stories about political corruption and cover ups that make for one incredibly satisfying story.
The performances are top notch all the way down the cast. Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Steven Bauer and even Terry O' Quinn turn in stellar performances. The movie takes place in Chicago and I believe it perfectly captures what I consider to be the Chicago mood or attitude (I live in a western suburb of Chicago).
Of course the movie is about more than an altar boy who may or may not have committed murder and political corruption. The movie's central character, Martin Vail (Gere), is a defense attorney who because of his high profile cases enjoys a minor celebrity status. His name is always in the newspapers and his face is always on the TV news. He can't get enough of this attention either. Martin is a great defense attorney, but he's definitely too arrogant for his own good. When a reporter asks, "When do you realize you have them? When do you realize you've won?" Vail responds without giving it much thought, "The minute I accept the case."
I saw this movie for the first time when it was released in the theaters. A lot of movies promise a "truly shocking ending" and that "THIS movie will keep you guessing until the very end." The trailers for Primal Fear said none of that. Sitting in the theater there was no expectation on my part for a twist ending. Perhaps that is why during its initial viewing it was more shocking to me than even the twist in The Sixth Sense. With The Sixth Sense you KNEW there was something to figure so for two hours that is exactly what you did. You tried to figure it out. Primal Fear's ending totally sucker punched me. The twist isn't revealed until the final minute or two of the movie, so up until the minute it is revealed the viewer honestly trusts everything they have just seen. There are no hints that what you are being told may not be true. It's a masterpiece. Hitchcock would have loved it and it's Edward Norton's performance that really makes it work.
Nevertheless director Gregory Hoblit ("NYPD Blue"(TV), Frequency(2000)) teases out a sheister's midnight musings--telegraphing that Vale is missing something--when he has the lawyer tell THE lawyer-joke ALL WRONG during the fade-in: the correct punchline to "What's the difference between a lawyer and a whore?", is "-The whore stops scr**ing you after you're dead".
This is Vale's emotional journey: how he became a sheister, whom he left behind, and whether, if we scratch his surface, he still has an ethical heart beating beneath his cocky-and-selfish exterior. Gere does his usual good job, delivering a solid performance elevated by terrific chemistry with his leading lady, even providing the movie with a stunning ending--but Primal Fear has become Edward Norton's star-maker, and an instant classic for it.
It's now the stuff of Hollywood legend how Norton was so impressive during his reading for the part of Aaron/Roy Stampler, that Tinseltown fell all over itself offering the unknown its meatiest parts even before Fear was "in the can". He's had a golden career since, being allowed to direct his 6th film (Keeping the Faith(2000)); and his fast rise in Hollywood has seemingly impelled Ed in private to question if this is all there is.
But Norton doesn't carry the acting load all by himself--that's spread out evenly among the top-notch cast assembled by Deborah Aquila and Jane Shannon. Laura Linney's edgy and "pi$$ed-off-as-hell" lone female lawyer certainly deflects much of Norton's glory.
Linney(Absolute Power(1997), Kinsey(2005), Jindabyne(2006)) for my money steals the movie, amply evidencing her Julliard training. Her Janet Venables is Vale's cynical nicotine-sucking ex-protégé, still plugging away at the State Attorney's Office long after he quit. Vale resents her lack of equal conviction, yet pines for her, having previously abandoned their romance. Unfortunately--or fortunately--she is still smarting from his arrogant self-serving attitude, and now gleefully baits him at every opportunity.
She has plenty, since they're opposing counsel in the Stampler case, and Linney delivers a wonderful 'bit' as she angrily apes Stampler to Vale: "I gotta admit, that FACE is GREAT--you prepping him to take the stand? That stutter is p-p-p-p-priceless"!
As noted, there are many familiar faces, mostly from TV: powerhouse Andre Braugher ("Homicide--Life on the Street"); soft-spoken Joe Spano ("Hill Street Blues"); prototypically-Irish-yet-deceptively-broiling John Mahoney ("Frasier"); sublimely blasé Alfre Woodard ("St Elsewhere"); and even pixyishly competent Maura Tierney (Liar Liar(1997)).
As in all the best courtroom-dramas, Fear is both socio-political and character-driven. It's packed to the brim with backstory for every character, thanks to its previous incarnation as a William Diehl novel. The gutsy Ann Biderman/Steve Shagan screenplay, combined with Hoblit's intelligent direction, allows the human relationships to be complex and to have lots of history, often with each other.
At just over 2hrs, Fear is a riveting education in the routine abduction of our legal system by the rich and powerful. They usually turn out to be the city fathers. John Shaughnessy(Mahoney), the State Attorney, knows he is the pivot of considerable financial skullduggery amidst the intimate secrets of all the usual players when he claims that "this city doesn't burn because I won't permit it".
This subplot recalls the notion of "menschkeit" from Ken Lipper's similarly-intentioned City Hall(1996).
The sudden, surprising fate of Vale's other client Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer, aka the skinny "gerbil" from Running Scared(1986), Det.Sigliano) serves as silent exposition to Shaughnessy's m.o.: it's a clue as to why Vale quit Shaughnessy's office in the first place.
Such lightning-bolts do make Miss Venables' determination to stay actually hard to comprehend, but her resultant tensile-steel-composure among men speaks volumes. Her tough-minded presence in "the enemy camp" offers Vale one last opportunity not to underestimate her. When he doesn't, it's the best compliment he could've paid her, relieving much of his earlier guilt.
We discover Shaughnessy's surprising personal stake in the Stampler case way late into the last quarter, as Vale FINALLY introduces it in court. The overdue explanation seems somewhat annoying, since the financial skullduggery represents a powerful motive for all those not on trial.
Stampler's backstory, too, must be as interesting as his awesome portrayal by Norton. His remark to Vale's psychiatrist (the surprisingly dull Frances McDormand (Fargo(2000)) that his father WAS not a nice man, is significant. He is making a distinction between the deaths of his father and mother, essentially "burying the lead".
There is one more clue about Stampler's feelings towards duplicitous people: his resentful flash of emotion upon being forced to admit that the archbishop's bending of altar-boy rules on Stampler's behalf was "nice of him". In hindsight, it's possible to guess at Stampler's tortured--and terrifying--inner world.
All this propels us towards the closing dilemma. We witness Vale's satisfaction at uncovering one onion-layer of truth as he finally exposes his former boss, but then lose his own righteous certainty once he realises that complete faith in innocence is also misplaced. This becomes the sheister's lament: "Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people's lives?!" Where do you put your faith when no-one is "clean"?
Credit must go to DoP Michael Chapman for Fear's profound epilogue: it depicts Gere's cuckolded lawyer trying to grasp his own humanity. Chapman visualises Vale's (suddenly) topsy-turvy-world with a tracking-overhead shot using a hothead mount, as Vale walks from the courtroom. The scene restores to a normal dolly shot as his cold stop--and bewilderment--jolts us into desperation, wondering if this hadn't just been Martin Vale's very LAST attempt at compassion.(10/10)
Primal Fear is the story on many levels of people who wear "masks", different sides of themselves to different people. Each character wears a different mask throughout the film. Vail wears the mask of being pompous and confident but in fact is scared, fragile, and emotional. The defendant Aaron wears the mask of being the innocent, scared little boy but has the evil alter personality that protects him. Laura Linney's character Janet Venable also wears the mask of being a confident, strong lawyer while in fact feeling her world is falling apart and of course the victim himself Bishop Rushman who to the city was a beloved man who helped many but in fact performed horrible perverted things on his children behind closed doors. Laura Linney is quite good as the rather shaken prosecutor who is really fighting for her job in trying to vindicate Aaron while taking on her former love Vail in the courtroom. She has something to prove and a huge chip on her shoulder and makes for some intense debates in the courtroom between Gere and Linney. Frances McDormand is also very good as Aaron's psychiatrist Dr. Arrington, she's very believable and handles the role with great intelligence. All these amazing performances in this film and they still don't even come fathoms close to touching that of then newcomer Mr. Edward Norton in his Academy Award (and hugely deserved) nominated role as Aaron Stampler and his protective, brash, angry, violent alter personality Roy. Norton is so believable as Stampler and to watch his scary transformation to Roy, his performance draws you in exactly like he's doing for the main characters in the film. You're feeling everything that Martin Vail is feeling as you watch this movie. Every single person's performance in this film is so brilliant that it adds into one amazing film. Other notable smaller performances are Maura Tierney, Alfre Woodard, John Mahoney, and the great Andre Braugher. None of these performances should be ignored.
Director Gregory Hoblit at the heart makes a courtroom drama with lots of behind the scenes investigation that puts the action and thrill into the film. But that doesn't stop when it hits the courtroom. The drama and fire ignites in the courtroom with the battle back and forth, further facts, new evidence, a story unfolding before us about this Bishop and his brutal murder. From beginning to end this is one entertainment at it's absolute best. In my opinion I state this as one of the greatest films ever period!! It's absolutely one of my top ten for certain. It's just powerful, moving, well acted and thrilling. It's exactly what you want a film to be...it's what movies are all about. Everyone must see this brilliant movie!! 10/10
Richard Gere was equally-proficient in his role as the big-shot defense attorney defending Norton's seemingly hapless "Aaron."
And Laura Linney - although in a role with less screen-time, was also equal in her performance as the prosecutor, and Gere's courtroom opposition and former lover.
The supporting roles were well-cast and played, and perhaps the only criticism to be given would be some brief sub-plot elements which weren't necessary to the main story, but really didn't detract from it significantly.
This film provides an excellent combination of courtroom- and psycho-drama - each excellent in its own right, and superb together in this presentation's plot.
Gripping, thoroughly-enjoyable entertainment.
I still don't really like it. Norton, of course, is magnificent, but the movie is plagued with flaws. The murder was unnecessarily graphic (did we really need to see blood spurting from severed fingers?), and the second act was slow, muddled, and, when all was said and done, rife with red herrings (nothing bored me more than the talk about fluctuating real estate prices, which ultimately didn't factor in the plot's resolution). And then there's that final revelation, which raised several unanswered questions.
Ok, if Aaron was faking it the whole time, then how long had he been affecting that stutter? The whole time he was an altar boy? If that's true, then he was planning the murder before he even met the archbishop - which means he would at that time have no reason to murder him. However, if he created that speech pattern after the murder, surely there would be plenty of people who'd know he was lying.
Other problems. Was there no effort at all to locate the missing girlfriend? What happened to Alex after he divulged the existence of the incriminating videotape? And wasn't that abnormally large bandage on his ear a too-obvious way for Gere to spot him? And couldn't that perfunctory chase sequence have been eliminated? We know they would have caught him so he could supply crucial information; if he had gotten away, what would have been the reason for the scene?
Still more. Speaking of that videotape, why would the bishop record every sexual encounter on a single tape, only to tape over the previous meeting to record the latest one? Wasn't it awfully convenient that he was killed before he could erase the important evidence? Did he tape others too, or just the three relevant to the plot? Also, wouldn't the judge have been required to order a complete psychiatric evaluation for Aaron before having him committed? Even though Aaron claimed to not have remembered his assault on the Linney character, couldn't he have easily heard about it from a guard or someone? (Of course he didn't - we'd have no surprise ending if he did.) And what's the probability that this kid could have duped all those intelligent, educated professionals so successfully?
If you can answer these questions for me, I'd love to hear from you. And, while I'm nitpicking, there's something else in the movie that annoyed me - Laura Linney's smoking. It was terribly obvious that Linney is a nonsmoker. Every time she lit up she would awkwardly hold the stick near her face while never taking a drag (the scene in the bar after she receives the videotape is the prime example). Sure, she'd occasionally put it between her lips, but the camera would always cut away before she inhaled, and the one time I saw her breathe out, there clearly was no smoke being exhaled.
Why have her character smoke? As a smoker, I cannot tell you how distracting this is. Whenever I notice this in movies, I am momentarily taken out of the story and instead am watching a documentary of an actress unconvincingly holding a lit cigarette. (Another example that comes to mind is Ashley Judd in DOUBLE JEOPARDY.)
Add all this to the stuff there we've all seen before in courtroom dramas - surprise testimony, murmurs from the peanut gallery that cause the judge to pound his/her gavel, a personal relationship between the prosecution and defense attorneys, a less-than-honorable John Mahoney (anyone else remember SUSPECT?) - and I now know why I don't like PRIMAL FEAR. It's the type of movie that needs about fifteen minutes trimmed from it (that chase scene can be the first to go) while requiring a couple of additional scenes to clarify plot points. But while I mentioned DOUBLE JEOPARDY here, I am in no way comparing the two; PRIMAL FEAR is twice as good as DOUBLE JEOPARDY - a 4/10 instead of 2/10.
Everyone in the city, nay, the universe believes Aaron Stampler is responsible for the slaying, which of course isn't just a cold-blooded mow-down; no, it's also mutilation, as numbers were carved into the archbishop's chest and his eyes were gouged out. But Martin Vail (Gere) believes he can get his client cleared of all charges; his thoughts on Stampler's actual guilt, he thinks, are largely irrelevant.
Opposing Vail as the prosecuting attorney is an ex-flame, Janet Venable, played by Laura Linney. (Side question: Has anyone seen Laura Linney and Joan Allen in the same room?) Oh sure, of course she's an ex-flame, because otherwise it'd be tougher to build up sexual tension between the two lawyers, which you apparently must have in courtroom dramas nowadays. The character of Venable seems to exist basically as a foil to Vail; she stomps about angrily, trying to assert herself as a woman lawyer while under the constant threat of job endangerment while somehow avoiding the incredible, awesome charms of Vail himself. I'm sure it was tough.
Vail's gotta find a way to give the jury a reasonable doubt. At his service he has trusty employees played by Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney, but there's only so much they can do. Just when Vail thinks he's succeeding, he's smacked over the head with reality; in other words, like most any other courtroom drama you've ever seen. Will Vail prevail? Did Stampler do it? Well, there IS a twist to the movie; two of them, actually. The first comes a little more than an hour into the movie, after an analysis by a shrink (Frances McDormand); the second, naturally, comes in the waning minutes of the film. Neither is Earth-shattering, and you might even be able to see the second one coming from a few miles away.
On the plus side, Gere seems to be having plenty of fun. I know, it's such an unusual role for him, the know-everything Superman who's just sooooo much better than anyone else and doesn't mind letting people know. Quite a departure from his other roles as a know-it-all cadet (An Officer and a Gentleman), a know-it-all stockbroker (Pretty Woman), and a know-it-all reporter (Runaway Bride). Still and all, he turns in an engaging, appealing performance. It's not like he'll knock your socks off with his emoting; it's more like he's just kind of fun to watch. Linney, who's very talented, does a good job as well, although she would get an eerily similar role in 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose (reviewed on this site recently). In that film, she was the defense attorney who was trying to assert herself as a woman attorney while under the constant threat of job endangerment. Both movies had the theme of priests in peril; here, it's a murdered archbishop who might not have been an innocent anyway, and in the Emily Rose it's a priest accused of murder by neglect. Well, at least Linney's not being typecast.
Probably the best aspect of the movie, though, is the emergence of Norton as a powerful on-screen presence. This was his first movie, but you'd never know it by his work here. He's not tentative, he's shifty, perfecting essaying his character's plight and innocence. A strong indication of things to come, as it turned out, as he's become one of America's finest thespians.
Overall, Primal Fear is a decent yarn carried by strong performances, but the plot twists are nothing to write home about.
Years ago, the UK did a day where the Government subsidised cinemas to offer all tickets for £1. On that day I had nothing I wanted to see but I thought (like thousands other) that a saving of £3 (at the time) was too good to miss, so I went to see this film despite my caution when it comes to courtroom thrillers. The plot here is so very full of holes that it is a wonder that the whole film doesn't fall into itself, however it just about manages to succeed by being quite clever and significantly different from the usual courtroom stuff (although it does still have the same faults as the rest of the genre).
The film is a lot darker than many courtroom thrillers; first of all, Vail is not a sympathetic character - he is arrogant and conceited, and the film never really offers him redemption at any point. Likewise the climax of the film is not the usual genre twist - or rather, it is, but not in the usual way. The film's main weakness however is that it is at least 20 minutes too long. The revelations about Roy happen but then are forgotten for about 10 minutes and then raised again before being put aside again. I really can't even understand why the film feels so padded at points in the middle when really that was when the Roy thing kicks in and the film should have stepped up a gear in a flash. That it doesn't is a problem, but not an insurmountable one, as it does slowly get faster towards a downbeat conclusion that is enjoyably different from the usual Perry Mason style twist (although it is a twist).
I'm by no means a Richard Gere fan, but he does a very good job here. He never wants to be a good guy here and he plays it well. However the film is driven by a great performance from Norton, marking himself out as one to watch in coming years. His dual roles are great and the film would have failed if he hadn't been able to carry it off. The support cast is surprisingly deep with people who were either well-known at the time or became famous later. When a cast includes Mahoney, McDormand, Woodard, Linney, Seda, and Braugher then it is worth a look - although some of them have very small roles there are no weak links. However it is a credit to Norton that he stands shoulder to shoulder with all of them and is the one that sticks in the mind long after it finishes.
Overall this is an enjoyable courtroom thriller that only struggles in the middle with an inability to really just let rip. It's ironic, but I enjoyed it because it was less showy and so on when compared to others of the genre, but it could have benefited from knowing when to let go sooner. However the cast is top notch and the unlikely plot is held together by a low key Gere and a fantastic central performance(s) from Norton.
But Richard Gere should be credited, too, with another fine acting performance. For quite awhile there, Gere acted in one good movie after another and I believe this was one of his best efforts. Sometimes his "pretty boy" image masked the fact that he has been a pretty darned good actor in a number of film.
Not only is the acting superb in here - by everyone, not just Norton - but the story is very involving, too. I remember being riveted to the screen while seeing this in the theater. Some of the scenes are quite shocking, particularly when we discover the real "Aaron Stampler" (Norton). If you wait awhile (at least five years) and see it again, it's still shocking even if you vaguely remember a few things.
The bad side of this - to me, not to most people, is the overuse of the Lord's name in vain in here (mostly by Gere, who is ridiculous in this role in that regard) and the obvious anti-Catholic bias in here. Once again on film, we discover that a priest turns out to not only be a sexual deviant but also the cause of Aaron's murderous mindset.
I also didn't find Laura Linney's character, "Janet Venable" to be entertaining, just annoying. There's something about Linney's smug looks that really turn me off. I have found that unlikeable characteristic in some of her other films, as well.
Overall, if language or Catholic-bashing doesn't bother you, this is a super film. Even if it does, it's a pretty intense crime movie and certainly entertaining.
I thought 'Primal Fear' was going great when the first little twist hit. I wasn't expecting it, and having that first fascinating twist sprung on me really made the movie just a little better. EdwardNorton's Aaron was an absolutely adorable altar boy with a Kentucky drawl and stutter that just made you love him more, and then he was Roy, angry, brash and violent.
Let me back track a bit. Aaron's been accused of slaughtering a prominent Arch Bisoph (and it appears as though he really did it too). His lawyer, a money and fame loving sleaze with a gold tinted heart (played by Gere)originally took the case in hopes of getting his name plastered on even more magazines. However, now he's becoming emotionally involved with abused and exploited Aaron, who suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder.
I don't even have words to express how much I liked this movie. The courtroom scenes weren't boring and drawn out and just when you think it's all resolved and justice has been done, 'Primal Fear' turns completely around and you are left thinking "Oh my God... what the... AWESOME!" I seriously urge Edward Norton fans, psychological thriller fans and film fans in general to rent (or buy) this film.