Review: Primal Fear (1996)


After watching and reviewing some tosh lately I thought I might revert back and review something I could rely on to entertain. So I revisited ‘Primal Fear’.

Richard Gere is hot shot lawyer Martin Vail, an unscrupulous defender of murderers and crooks whose sole focus is on winning cases. He loves his ‘fifteen minutes’ on TV, the money and the glory of undoubtedly being the best in Chicago.

He takes on the biggest murder case in recent ‘windy city’ history when altar boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) appears bang to rights when fleeing bloodied from the murder scene of the city’s revered archbishop.

Vail knows this could be the biggest case he has ever defended, so takes the case pro bono; but has his convictions and judgement challenged when he begins to believe that no matter how it may appear, Aaron is innocent, pushing aside his usual dispassion to build a case to prove that the angel faced defendant was incapable of such a heinous act.

But everything is not all that it first appears, when it’s revealed that the butchered victim was not all holy, engaging in abuse of the vulnerable he was sworn to protect and political corruption, with crooked property investments under the banner of the church.

Martin expertly constructs his case focussing on a lifetime of abuse of Aaron and a failure of a care system, pleading for the judicial sympathy vote coupled with his own conviction of Aaron’s innocence where a third person was surely responsible when Aaron compellingly pleads he was in an unconscious state throughout, having no idea of who perpetrated the crime.

‘Primal Fear’ brilliantly diverts the eye and mind away from the issues of guilt or innocent; most relevant is the notion that all deserve the right to counsel in a flawed defence and prosecution system.

Martin later drunkenly reveals a shrouded nobility when acknowledging that the buzz of success is an allurement of his profession, but his motives are placed firmly at the right end of the moral compass believing more fundamentally, that all are innocent until proven guilty and the basic goodness of people; lamenting “I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things”. This inner motivation goes unheralded, hidden under Vail’s façade of arrogance and dispassion revealing a greater depth of character; comparable with a multi-faceted, increasingly revealing and  deceptive story. Nothing is what it appears to be on the surface.

Gere gives what initially seems to be a typical showy, charming performance seen numerous times before, but evolves into something with greater dimension as secrets are revealed and is one of the star’s best performances.

Rightfully Oscar nominated in 1997, Norton gives an early, and still his best performance as the stammering innocent who is presented as a victim of the neglect and exploitation by those with power.

Laura Linney as ‘Janet Venable’ makes far more of the customary role of the state prosecution lawyer and former lover of ‘Vail’, matching her courtroom opponent blow for verbal blow.

Frances McDormand is also superb as the case Psychologist ‘Molly’, who presides over the first knock out reveal and cements even more firmly, the belief in Aaron’s innocence.

‘Primal Fear’ just like its story taken from Williem Diehl’s novel, is more than what it first appears. More than the normal courtroom drama it’s also a multi-dimensional character study, brilliantly acted; but also a commentary on the exploitation of the weak and corruption of power in trusted institutions, the thrill of professional success and the misplacing of belief and trust.

It also provides the faithful viewer with a stupendously shattering pay-off when righteous justice has seemingly been served.

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6 responses to “Review: Primal Fear (1996)

  1. Great review mate. I really liked this movie. As you rightly say, it’s one of Gere’s better shows and I don’t normally rate him as an actor. Norton was absolutely riveting. He should have cleaned up at the oscars. The only gripe I had was light overplotting. The Steven Bauer gangster plot could have been omitted entirely an I don’t think it would have upset the rest of the film. Otherwise, a great movie though.

    • in the end some of the sub-plots where irrelevant but this may have been a completely intended distraction from the reveal. i watched it last night for the first time in ages and all the clues are blatant but brilliantly placed, I never called it when I first saw it. cuba gooding Jnr won it that year, i think Norton should have won. great film.

      • It’s been years since I seen it. Id love a rewatch to see what jumps out. I never thought of the sub-plots being purely distraction but it makes sense. I’m dying to see this again. Amazon here I come! 😉

      • go for it! There’s lots of dialogue that’s jumps out right from the off, I found my self sniggering at how blatant and brilliant it was with hindsight. Enjoy.

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