Published on March 18th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Primal Fear [1996]

Primal Fear [1996] Clint Davis

Summary: Primal Fear boasts a great cast and an effective twist ending but is ultimately an average courtroom drama.


Dime a Dozen

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R  |  130 min.

Director: Gregory Hoblit  |  Screenplay: Steve Shagan & Ann Biderman (Based on William Diehl’s novel)

Starring: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Primal Fear is your run-of-the-mill courtroom drama in almost every way.

The central character of the film is Martin Vail (Richard Gere), the prototypical hotshot attorney, who makes big money defending likely-guilty criminals in Chicago.  In his performance, Gere brings his usual slickness to the screen and hits all the dramatic highs and lows afforded him by the screenplay.  Vail is no stranger to attracting media attention but everyone, including his own staffers, think he’s in over his head when he decides to defend Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a 20-something altar boy who’s the only suspect in the brutal murder & mutilation of a well-known local Archbishop.

While Gere plays the lead role in Primal Fear, it’s Norton’s performance that gives this film legs.  Like Samuel L. Jackson in A Time to Kill, Norton may not dominate the screen time but he makes every scene he’s in count.  If you’ve seen great films like American History X or Fight Club, you tend to expect great performance from Edward Norton but at only 27 years-old, this was his feature film debut.  Director Gregory Hoblit (Fallen, Frequency) put a ton of faith in the young actor by giving him by-far the most challenging role in the movie.

And it’s not as if the cast didn’t have much talent, the credits read like a dream team of 1990’s talent: Gere, Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and Terry O’-freaking Quinn (aka: John Locke from TV’s Lost).  However, pretty much all of these performers are reduced to paint-by-numbers characters.

Primal Fear is by-the-numbers courtroom fare but Edward Norton impresses.

The problem here isn’t with storyline, direction, or execution; it’s the script and aesthetics that fall well short.  Instead of looking sleek and modern like its main character, Primal Fear feels like it was made in the late-1980’s rather than in 1996.  The scoring is bland and the cinematography is very safe, which is in direct conflict with the graphic gore (a man’s fingers are chopped off with a knife in the first five minutes) and controversial subject matter (sex crimes) featured in this film.

My issue with the screenplay is that it tries to cram too much information in while still being simplistic.  About halfway through the plot, while Vail is searching for the mysterious “third man” who Stampler claims was in the room when the murder took place, a psychiatrist realizes that Stampler may have some serious mental issues, bringing his sanity into question.  Like most courtroom dramas, Primal Fear boils something as complicated as a capital murder trial down to its most basic state.  The prosecution calls 2-3 witnesses damning Stampler, then the defense calls 2-3 witnesses to provide the jury with some doubts, and voila! a verdict is reached.

While most elements of this movie are boilerplate courtroom drama fare, the combination of Edward Norton’s performance and one hell of a strong plot twist make it a bit more memorable.  If Primal Fear leaves you feeling flat for the first 90-minutes stick around because the ending will make it feel somewhat worth it.

Buy Primal Fear on Amazon.com!

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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