Primal Fear

A beloved archbishop is brutally murdered, and an altar boy (Edward Norton) is seen fleeing the scene, covered in blood. All evidence seems to point to the boy as the culprit. A stereotypical Richard Gere/Tom Cruise character (played by Richard Gere), a hot-shot, high-powered, ruthless attorney, decides to go for even more fame and fortune and defend the boy.

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 corporate raider (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 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, perfectly 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.

***

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One Response to “Primal Fear”

  1. David Winsor Says:

    soounds like a it’s ace

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