Despite a title that makes 1996's "Primal Fear" sound like a horror flick, the movie is really a nifty little mystery thriller. It was the big-screen debut for director Gregory Hoblit after more than a decade of TV work. To give you an idea of the kind of thing Hoblit does, he went on to make "Fallen," "Hart's War," "Untraceable," and "Fracture," which I think was his best film since "Primal Fear." I might add that "Primal Fear" is also notable for its fine performances by Richard Gere and Edward Norton, the latter also making his big-screen debut. So, it's a noteworthy motion picture all the way around.
Gere plays a hotshot, headline-hunting Chicago defense attorney, Martin Vail. Or so it appears. He's very smart, very successful, and not above representing known mobsters. Vail sees the brutal murder of the city's Archbishop as a perfect high-profile case for him, especially since the young man accused of the murder, nineteen-year-old Aaron Stampler (Norton), has no motive for the crime, and there were no witnesses to the event. What's more, Aaron is an altar boy, a shy, small-town kid from Kentucky with no prior record. Vail figures that all he needs to do is persuade one member of the jury to find reasonable doubt, and he can win an acquittal. With an angelic face like Aaron's, Vail figures he can't lose. On the other hand, the District Attorney (John Mahoney) thinks the prosecution has an open-and-shut case, too, a slam dunk: The police caught Aaron running from the scene of the crime, covered in the Archbishop's blood. Still, Vail feels he can successfully defend the young fellow and, given the sensational nature of the crime, make an even bigger name for himself.
But life is never so simple, whether you're one of the good guys or one of the bad. The D.A. assigns Vail's former business associate and onetime girlfriend, Janet Venable (Laura Linney), to prosecute the case, and she is every bit Vail's equal. Moreover, she understands the way Vail thinks and reasons. If anybody can beat him, she can.
Now, here's the thing: Aaron seems truly to believe that he didn't do it, even though Vail doesn't care. Vail even tells Aaron it makes no difference to him if he committed the crime or not. It's his job only to defend him and get him off the hook, period. Yet, as the case proceeds, Vail comes to believe in Aaron's innocence himself.
As the trial progresses, the story begins developing an ever-widening web of complications, not the least of which is that the Archbishop's financial affairs seem to implicate him and other powerful city officials in dealings of a shady sort. And, worse, the Archbishop's private life may not be everything it should be.
No, nothing is simple. As the tale unfolds, it becomes twistier, with a new turn at every corner. Vail is more complex than the show-boater he appears; and Aaron may or may not be all he seems, either. Aaron says he can't remember a thing after wandering into the crime scene, seeing a third person there, and then running for his life. He says he often has blackouts. The movie even raises some doubts about the character of the D.A. What a nest of vipers we get in this film.
Certainly, "Primal Fear" is a good courtroom drama, but more than that it's a good brainteaser, with new puzzles to solve in every scene. Plus, it's got a wealth of fine acting going for it. Gere is no mere automaton walking through the part of a slick suit but invests the role with mixed emotions, strength and vulnerability. Then, too, we couldn't ask for a better actor as the defendant than Norton, who transforms his character into a pure enigma. It's fun watching these guys work together, with excellent support from Linney and Mahoney, and a fine minor portrayal from Francis McDormant as a psychiatrist Vail hires to investigate Aaron's personality.
Note, however, that in a movie that makes very few missteps, it is odd that Hoblit allowed one big distracting element to creep into the proceedings. About halfway through the film, there is a lengthy foot chase, at the end of which no one is in the least bit winded. I mean, such a chase would have exhausted even an Olympic athlete, but not here. They don't even break a sweat. It's the kind of thing that momentarily takes a viewer out of the picture and has him scratching his head.
Any other issues? You bet. The plot has loopholes in it big enough to drive a getaway car through. But I'm thinking you won't notice them as you're watching the movie. It's only when the film ends and you start analyzing it that you have to question some of the things that happen. Best not to analyze.
You might guess the outcome of "Primal Fear" well in advance of the ending, but you're not likely to forget the characters. Or, who knows, you might find yourself guessing to the very last and being surprised, anyway. I hope that's the case.
The video quality on this disc is generally passable, but it is seldom outstanding. The colors in the 1.85:1-ratio, anamorphic transfer show up nicely, almost always looking realistic. In a few scenes the hues tend to fade into a kind of pastel, but it isn't often. The trouble is that definition runs the gamut from reasonably sharp and precise to soft and blurry; just pick your scene. Fortunately, the brightness of the image tends to make even the less-detailed scenes look better. There are moderately good black levels and also a fair amount of film grain in the picture, more so in darker scenes, giving the overall picture a somewhat rough and gritty appearance.
Although I had some concerns about the video quality, I had almost none about the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Considering that this film is largely dialogue driven, one can hardly fault the soundtrack. The sonics are full, warm, and natural yet well balanced, too, with speech clear and faithful. There is also a relatively strong sense of surround throughout, with ambient environmental noises and musical bloom creating a pleasing all-around soundstage. Trains, cars, helicopters, radios, etc., all fill in the corners of the listening room. This is not a superspectacular soundtrack, just a pleasing one for the type of film it's supporting.
There are several featurettes and the usual audio commentary on the disc. The commentary is a joint effort by director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila, all of whom blend well. Next, there is an eighteen-minute featurette, "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict," a behind-the-scenes affair with the filmmakers; an eighteen-minute featurette, "Primal Fear: Star Witness," that focuses on the casting Edward Norton as Aaron; and the thirteen-minute featurette "The Psychology of Guilt," which examines the subject of the criminal defense in the film.
The extras conclude with twenty-six scene selections; previews of other Paramount movies at start-up and in the main menu; a widescreen theatrical trailer; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
If you like courtroom dramas, detective stories, or mystery yarns, you're likely to enjoy Gregory Hoblit's film version of William Diehl's novel, "Primal Fear." The plot is engaging, the cast is exceptional, and Hoblit moves things along in commendably straightforward fashion. Very entertaining.