Primal Fear posterPrimal Fear (1996)

Starring Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, John Mahoney, Andre Braugher, and Maura Tierney.
Written by Ann Biderman and Steve Shagan.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit.

Grade: B

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Primal Fear. The title evokes visions of straight-to-video hell, doesn't it? Power modifier: Primal. Abstract noun: Fear. Indecent Exposure. Final Analysis. Mortal Thoughts. Intimate Obsession. Extreme Prejudice. Sexual Intent. All these movies, and many more, have tried to capitalize on the success of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct by using similar titles. Few of them are any good.

Primal Fear is one of the exceptions. It is consistently entertaining; it has a fantastic cast, and, most importantly, it is the film debut of two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton, who came out of nowhere to wow audiences with his portrayal of Aaron, a nineteen-year-old altar boy accused of gruesomely murdering an archbishop. Despite the fact that Aaron is discovered near the crime scene soaked in the archbishop's blood, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) believes that young Aaron is innocent.

Richard GereAs Aaron, Norton is a stuttering, nervous wreck, and disarmingly childlike. The role of Aaron was originally supposed to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who eventually backed out of the project. A nationwide casting call failed to yield a replacement for a long time when in walked unknown Norton, claiming to be from Kentucky himself, just like Aaron, when Norton actually grew up in an affluent Maryland suburb. It was Norton who decided that Aaron should have a stutter. Norton won the role, and eventually he also won a 1996 Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In fact, he was the strongest nominee in the field, even though the Oscar eventually went to Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Jerry McGuire). The fact that Norton was an unknown made his performance all the more effective, as audiences had no idea what to expect from him as an actor. Unfortunately, it's impossible to discuss Norton's memorable performance further without giving away the twists and turns of the plot.

Edward Norton Laura Linney (The Truman Show), who plays the prosecutor Janet Venable, does the best she can with a poorly-conceived character. The romantic subplot between Vail and Venable is distracting and unnecessary. The rest of the fine cast features Frances McDormand (1997 Best Actress Oscar Winner for Fargo) as the psychiatrist who evaluates Aaron, Alfre Woodard (NBC's St. Elsewhere) as the judge, John Mahoney (NBC's Frasier) as the district attorney, and Andre Braugher (NBC's Homicide) and Maura Tierney (NBC's NewsRadio) as Vail's investigative team. Each turns in a first-rate performance. The weakest link is the insufferable Richard Gere himself. Apparently, he belongs to the school of acting that advocates conveying any emotion (other than smug self-satisfaction) by blinking a lot. Still, even Gere does a good job here, mostly because he's playing an arrogant jerk--his strength as a performer.

By the end of the movie, the story's credibility is stretched thin, but who cares? Primal Fear is absorbing and fun--which is more than many other courtroom dramas can say. Director Gregory Hoblit paces the story slowly enough to allow you to absorb the clues and consider all the possible explanations, but quickly enough to keep things interesting.  Of course, nothing is what it seems, and Primal Fear will keep you guessing until the final credits.

Review © April 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© 1996 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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