Sunday 19 December 2021

Movie Review: Primal Fear (1996)

A crime and courtroom drama, Primal Fear boasts a satisfyingly convoluted case brought to life by a terrific cast and one spectacular debut.

In Chicago, the respected Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) is brutally murdered. The police quickly arrest altar boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) as he is escaping from the scene covered in blood. Celebrity defence lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) offers his services to Aaron pro bono. Prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), one of Martin's ex-lovers, is assigned to the case, with a mandate from her boss District Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) to secure a conviction and the death penalty.

The prosecution's case against Aaron is strong but lacks a motive. Martin interviews the stuttering, soft-spoken Aaron, and determines the simple young man from Kentucky is incapable of murder. Martin recruits psychologist Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand) to evaluate Aaron, while his team uncover several plots swirling around the Archbishop, including a politically-driven land development deal and evidence of sexual impropriety. In the courtroom of Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard), Martin and Janet square off, but in an already complicated and high-profile case, surprises await them both. 

An adaptation of the William Diehl novel directed by Gregory Hoblit, Primal Fear is a richly textured drama. Packed with revelations, the plot finds new twists at regular intervals, and despite plenty of artistic freedoms stays just on the right side of cinematically credible. The Archbishop's murder is only the starting point, and before long sub-plots related to corrupt business deals, pedophilia, and personality disorders merge into a grand, multi-faceted mystery.

Of course some of the detours are elaborate distractions to cast doubt and open new avenues of potential guilt and innocence, prolonging the fundamental guessing game around Aaron's role. The altar boy as an innocent victim caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is Martin's thesis for the defence, but Aaron could also have been a pawn in much larger game, or holding his own difficult-to-uncover motive. 

In his big screen debut, Edward Norton's performance as the hesitant, deferential, and scared Aaron is a stunning bolt of lightning. But then Martin and Dr. Arrington delve further into the defendant's psyche and reveal much more to his character, and Norton moves to a higher level of dominance, evolving into a formidable and unpredictable presence.

The rest of the cast is packed with talent, Richard Gere infusing Martin Vail with plenty of depth and arrogant confidence in the central role. In contrast Laura Linney struggles with a choppy definition of prosecutor Janet Venable, often caught in unconvincing demonstrations of tough mannerisms.

At 130 minutes, Primal Fear goes on, and along with writers Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, Hoblit could have tightened the pacing. A foot race involving another alter boy with something to hide is wholly unnecessary, some of the courtroom shenanigans could have been truncated, and the sexual tension between Martin and Janet is overplayed and loops in repetitive circles.

But Primal Fear is an overall gripping legal thriller. The courtroom manoeuvres maintain a pointed level of drama as intersecting battles of wits and wills play out, some plain to see, others just plain devious.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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