As an attorney, it sometimes becomes annoying to watch movies and TV shows about the legal profession. Its not that I expect such films and shows to accurately portray the practice of law, but I still cannot help but obsess over the mistakes I see committed by fictional lawyer characters. PRIMAL FEAR is not as bad as some other law films/shows I have seen, but it certainly exercises its share of creativity when it comes to the practice of law. However, I’m obviously not going to judge the merits of this film on how accurately it portrays what lawyers do. PRIMAL FEAR is a pleasant enough 2+ hour diversion that doesn’t hold up as well as it did upon its initial release in 1996, but it remains a guilty pleasure. The film is the type of story you would pick up at an airport bookstore and devour over the course of a single (domestic) flight. It’s a legal thriller that was one among many legal thrillers that came out during the 1990’s (A FEW GOOD MEN, THE FIRM, A TIME TO KILL, THE PELICAN BRIEF, A CIVIL ACTION). PRIMAL FEAR didn’t quite have the star power wattage nor the high stakes plotline that the films I just listed had. However, it did have one thing the other films did not…Edward Norton’s career-launching and Academy Award-nominated performance (who lost to, of all people, Cuba Gooding, Jr.).

PRIMAL FEAR stars Richard Gere as Marty Vail, a very successful and very confident Chicago criminal defense attorney. One day, Vail learns of the murder of a prominent community leader, Archbishop Rushman. A young alter boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), is arrested and charged with the murder of the Archbishop. Vail decides to take on Stampler’s case and represent the boy pro bono (free of charge). Although present in the room where the murder took place, Aaron completely denies killing the Archbishop and cannot even remember the details of what happened. Marty becomes convinced that there was a third person, the killer, in the room and he’s determined to find him. His search reveals more details about the Archbishop, involving dirty Chicago politics at its best. Meanwhile, the Chicago prosecutor’s office assigns Janet Venable (Laura Linney), Vail’s ex-lover, to handle the case. The film also stars John Mahoney, who plays Janet’s boss and a prominent figure in Chicago, Alfre Woodard, who plays the judge handling the murder trial, and Frances McDormand, as the psychologist who examines Aaron.

PRIMAL FEAR looks like and plays like an episode of a TV legal show. This is not surprising considering that it was directed by Gregory Hoblit (FREQUENCY, FALLEN, HARTS WAR), an Emmy-award winning veteran director of such shows as NYPD Blue, L.A. Law, and Hill Street Blues. PRIMAL FEAR has a flat, dull look (especially bad is the scene that takes place in an abandoned area where the homeless live). However, the film also benefits from the story-telling efficiency prevalent in TV writing. The director does not waste any time beginning the film. The opening of the film quickly establishes Marty Vail by having him describe his philosophy to a journalist writing a piece about him. Within the first 10 minutes, the film establishes location (Chicago), Marty’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend Janet, and we witness the social standing Marty has within the Chicago legal community and the influence he wields.

Richard Gere is perfectly cast as the cocky defense attorney. He’s intelligent, handsome, and knows all the powerful people in Chicago. Marty is good at what he does and he knows it. He has become so successful he practically assumes he’s going to win his cases. Despite his success, Marty remains an outsider from Chicago’s insider circle and part of why he decides to take on Aaron’s case is to stick it to the establishment that looks down on him. I think Gere’s performance is just as good and mesmerizing to watch as that given by Edward Norton, but, as usual, Gere’s efforts were overlooked by the critics.

Of course, anytime anyone mentions PRIMAL FEAR (and even why its still remembered today) is the performance given by Edward Norton. If you have not seen this film, then I strongly recommend you not read the rest of this review because the fun of watching this film is finding out how the story gets resolved and its not what you expect. Aaron Stampler comes off as an extremely sympathetic, naïve boy who is clearly way out of his element. When you first meet him, you think to yourself that there is no way that a nice Kentucky boy like him could have killed the Archbishop even though the story he gives is implausible and no other evidence indicates that anyone else could have done it other than him. Norton completely catches you off your guard with his dumb hick impression. Up until his transformation into ‘Roy,’ you will wonder why this film was so popular because there is nothing about the plot that distinguishes it from any other legal thriller. Now its not the fact that Aaron has a multiple personality disorder that suddenly makes PRIMAL FEAR into an interesting film. It’s the 2nd surprise at the end of the film that makes it so memorable.

During the 1990’s, screenwriters discovered that audiences dug the hell out of surprise endings. It started in 1995 with THE USUAL SUSPECTS and the trend continued in a few films thereafter, including PRIMAL FEAR and THE SIXTH SENSE. Coincidentally, all three films contained Academy Award-nominated or winning performances. The surprise element in this film doesn’t have the shock that it once had and it feels more contrived now than it did before. What lessens the ending’s impact is that we’re already given a prior twist where Aaron exhibits multiple personalities. When we finally reach the point where we discover that Aaron was faking it all along, the second twist feels more preposterous than surprising.

I have always found that the best cinematic legal films are those that tell a straightforward story. One would think that a simple story of a man in trial fighting for his life would be interesting by itself. However, filmmakers seem to be afraid that such a story might be too boring for audiences and they attempt to spice things up with cheap melodramatics. That’s what we have here. Its not enough that PRIMAL FEAR could have been about a defense attorney who seeks to save his young client from the death penalty. Instead, the film has to throw in extra shit like a sexual affair with an archbishop, multiple personalities, and a corrupt prosecutor. Having these subplots is not necessarily a bad idea, but in this film, the plots regarding the sexual affair and the corrupt prosecutor are not fully developed. The sexual affair really only serves as a red herring to give the Aaron motive to kill the archbishop and to hide Aaron’s true nature. When its discovered that Aaron never had a multiple personality disorder, you realize the sexual affair was meaningless because Aaron would have probably killed the archbishop anyway. As for the corrupt prosecutor and the shady real estate deal the archbishop was involved in, it had zero relevance to the main plot. It was another red herring to make the audience think that someone else was involved in murdering the archbishop.

PRIMAL FEAR would have been a far more engaging film if it had focused instead on Aaron and Marty’s relationship and Marty’s attempt to find out about Aaron’s background. This could have been a great psychological thriller where we find out where Aaron came from and why he is the way he is. By the end of the film, we know very little about Aaron and we have no idea why he killed the archbishop.

One of the things I did really enjoy in PRIMAL FEAR was Marty and Janet Venable’s relationship. The two generate good chemistry and the dialogue written for the scenes between them is sharp. In fact, the dialogue reminded me a bit of the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Laura Linney was still early in her career and she had not yet established herself as a leading independent film actress. Her talents are clearly exhibited here and one particular scene worth watching is her cross-examination of Aaron.

PRIMAL FEAR ends up being a cookie-cutter legal thriller that is saved by strong performances from Edward Norton, Richard Gere, and Laura Linney. I don’t think this film tried to be anything more than a cookie-cutter legal thriller and it got lucky to get strong performances because otherwise, I would not be reviewing the film and it would have gone into the dollar bin.

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