Miramax // 1996 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 10th, 2009
Don't believe everything you see.
"I choose to believe in the goodness of people. Some basically good people do some very bad things."
Martin Vail (Richard Gere, Nights in Rodanthe) is perhaps the most prominent attorney in the Chicago area. He's been profiled for a variety of noteworthy magazines, and his face is often seen on television (usually news coverage related to the latest sensational trial). Once upon a time, Vail worked for the District Attorney, but he had a change of heart. Though Vail loves money and fame, he genuinely feels better about defending the potentially innocent than he felt about prosecuting the potentially guilty. Even so, Vail represents a lot of rather shady characters, and his name seems to be known by every well-connected businessman and crook in the city.
One day, a startling event shakes up the city. The archbishop is brutally murdered. He was stabbed 78 times, his eyes were gouged out, and some sort of strange message was carved into his chest. A suspect named Aaron (Edward Norton, The Incredible Hulk) is arrested within a matter of hours. Aaron has the archbishop's blood smeared all over him. It seems like an open-and-shut case, despite the fact that Aaron insists he didn't commit the crime. In an attempt to get his name in the headlines once again, Martin Vail agrees to defend Aaron. Vail is quite surprised to discover that he finds Aaron's plea of innocence very convincing, and determines to find out who was really behind the murder. Vail thinks he might have a shot, but a ferociously intelligent prosecutor (Laura Linney, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is even more confident of her impending victory. Slowly but surely, a web of lies and horrors will be unveiled. Who really killed the archbishop, and why?
The courtroom drama has always been one of the most reliable and durable sources of entertainment. The U.S. legal system may be a messy and unjust system at times, but it is masterfully structured as a source of interesting dramatic material. The court lends itself very well to monologues, showboating and climactic battles between good and evil (or these days, between varying shades of gray). The courtroom is an actor's paradise, and the genre was perhaps never stronger then during the 1990s (aka "The John Grisham Era"). The studios suddenly realized that there was a great big market for character-driven legal thrillers. This was actually a win for both studios and moviegoers, as I think the genre produced more good films than bad ones: JFK, A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker, A Few Good Men, A Civil Action, The Pelican Brief...I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
One of the more well-regarded films of this era was Primal Fear, from the often good but never great director Gregory Hoblit. The film did reasonably well at the box office, despite getting off to something of a slow start on opening weekend. I suspect this had a lot to do with the fact that people who saw the film went and told their friends about it. It's the sort of movie that tends to inspire a lot of word-of-mouth buzz (also, it was released in an era when movie theatres still allowed word-of-mouth buzz to work its magic before shutting a film down after one mediocre week). Like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, Primal Fear is the sort of film you want everyone else to see so you can talk about the big twists with them.
However, I actually think that Primal Fear holds up even better than The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, because this film isn't about the twists. The other films live or die based on the strength of their big revelations, but this one is simply a sharp legal thriller that just so happens to have some really surprising plot developments. The characters are all finely-tuned, and the screenplay by Ann Biderman and Steve Shagan is very sharp. They manage to achieve a fine balance between crowd-pleasing theatrics and credible realism. Star Richard Gere actually plays a large part in helping the film walk this fine line. Sure, there may not be many lawyers who have the looks of Richard Gere, but the performance seems very real from start to finish. I've never been a huge fan of Gere as an actor (I think he slips into blandness very easily), but he's persuasive and engaging here. A strong supporting cast provides top-drawer back-up: Laura Linney, John Mahoney (Say Anything), Frances McDormand (Fargo), Alfre Woodard (Take the Lead), and Terry O'Quinn (Lost).
The film is probably best-known for launching the career of an immensely talented actor named Edward Norton. Rarely have I seen such an assured and confident debut. Norton dives into a very challenging part with gusto and delivers big-time during all of his important scenes. I can't tell you too much about his character or his performance without spoiling some important plot developments, but I can assure that Norton is far and away the most memorable element in a film that contains many noteworthy qualities.
The hi-def transfer of Primal Fear is rather underwhelming, I think. The image is quite grainy throughout, and lacks the knockout visuals that one comes to expect when purchasing a Blu-ray disc. Of course, the film isn't exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey on a visual level, but there are some really engaging visuals here (such as the well-staged opening sequence) that deserve to look stronger. Additionally, flesh tones seem just a bit off, as everyone looks just a little too reddish at times. Even so, blacks are nice and deep, and the image is fairly crisp and clean aside from the grain. Additionally, background detail is quite strong throughout. The audio is solid, with a diverse score by James Newton Howard being mixed in quite subversively throughout. Still, don't expect shootouts or anything terribly noisy...this is a rather quiet and low-key audio track (unless you count yelling in the courtroom).
This Blu-ray disc presents the "Hard Evidence" version of the film, which duplicates the supplements from the 2006 special edition release. First up is a commentary track with director Gregory Hoblit, producers Gary Lucchesi and Hawk Koch, casting director Deb Aquila, and writer Ann Biderman. Despite the numerous participants, the track is still very spotty, and some folks just seem to run out of things to say. There are also several featurettes here. "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict" (18 minutes) features interviews with the cast and crew (except Gere, who isn't onhand for any of the supplemental material) about the making of the film. "Primal Fear: Star Witness" (18 minutes) is essentially an 18-minute version of the chant, "We found Edward Norton, we found Edward Norton! Go us!" It's actually worth a look, though. "Psychology of Guilt" (13 minutes) is a brief examination of the insanity plea, featuring interviews with psychologists. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer.
Andre Braugher (The Mist) is a talented actor, but he is horribly mishandled in his role here. The screenplay can't seem to decide whether Braugher's character is incredibly smart or very stupid, and there's an irritating running gag about Braugher's confusion on when to use the word "allegedly." I also wish that the film had used a little more clarity in its handling of the sub-plot involving Mahoney, Gere, and a couple of suspicious crime figures in the Chicago area. Otherwise, I have few complaints about the film.
Primal Fear is a very strong legal thriller/courtroom drama, and is well worth a watch. If you already own the special edition DVD, I'm not sure I can recommend an upgrade to this Blu-ray disc.
The film is not guilty, while this disc is guilty of providing a mediocre transfer and no new supplemental material.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R