Primal Fear (1996)
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit | 130 minutes | drama, crime, thriller | Actors: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, Terry O’Quinn, Andre Braugher, Steven Bauer, Joe Spano, Jon Seda, Reg Rogers
Provided everyone is ruthlessly going for the win – in court or in high positions – no one has clean hands. This is how the American legal system works – according to Martin Vail – and the lawyer masters the game down to the smallest detail. Sure, it would be a nice touch if the person you’re defending is really innocent, but it’s not necessary. Vail wants and will win and preferably with his head on TV.
His client Aaron, an inept acolyte who later turns out to have been abused by his protectors, is the very epitome of that offending innocence. He barely gets out of his words and ends every sentence with maam or sir. “Shut up and look pathetic is Vail’s advice to Aaron when they have to go into court. Whether it helps is another matter, because Aaron was covered in blood from the Archbishop’s room and Vail is not going for a declaration of insanity, but wants a full acquittal.
‘Primal Fear’ is a court drama that stands out mainly because of the good acting of the main characters and the unconventional approach, because with the synopsis of the film you don’t get much further than an average Perry Mason. After a somewhat tedious first hour, in which it is not really clear why Vail is risking his reputation for Aaron, the film really gets going in the second half. Vail takes pity on his client; Interesting new evidence emerges that could benefit both him and the prosecutor, and the courtroom fight between the ex-lovers nearly spirals out of control. The outcome is the result of cynical manipulation, but that doesn’t come from the angle you might expect.
Richard Gere as Martin Vail is the brilliant pivot of this film. He uses his bravado to take on a seemingly lost cause, fights personal feuds in court, loses his ‘touch’, manages to escape with a Houdini act and is subsequently framed. DA Janet Venable tries to outdo Vail, but is knocked down by her own ethics. Gere convinces as a manipulative charmer who is-actually-raw-shell-white-spit. Linney gives him a good match, but actually plays a supporting role. The latter also applies to Edward Norton, but his portrayal of the unpredictable freak Aaron is a highlight. John Maloney is Venable’s corrupt boss and Frances McDormand is dutifully allowed to show up as Aaron’s psychologist.
There are a few loose threads here and there. The developments are sometimes slow, then fast and there are some side paths that are not very convincing, but as a variation on the traditional court drama ‘Primal Fear’ is very worthwhile