Paramount // 1996 // 129 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // March 10th, 2009
You're going to have to try harder to get the word "allegedly" into your vocabulary; especially if you want to be a lawyer.
The success or failure of a courtroom drama depends almost entirely on the strength of performance and the way the screenplay reveals the evidence. It is a tried and true formula throughout film, television, and the stage and, over the years, the logistics of them have changed very little. 1996 brought Primal Fear to the screen, based on William Diehl's novel of the same name and, additionally, debuted one of the finest actors of this generation in Edward Norton (American History X). While his Oscar-nominated performance is outstanding, the film suffers from heavy-handed, yet inconsistent, characters and an overcooked story.
Top flight defense attorney Mickey Vail (Richard Gere, The Hoax) chases around the highest profile perps in Chicago to defend because he loves the spotlight. When a young altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Norton) is accused of the vicious slaying of an archbishop of the Catholic Church, Vail offers his services to the boy pro bono. Unluckily for him, the prosecutor is an old flame (Laura Linney, Congo), and she's been given the direct order to aggressively seek the death penalty. Vail's investigation for the case bring a web of corruption and exploitation to the surface that threatens to turn the city of Chicago upside down, but can he win the chess match against the person who knows him best?
If only the law profession was as action-packed as it's presented in Primal Fear, everybody would want to be a lawyer. This kind of twisty drama, however, only happens in the movies and seldom is a plot more pointlessly serpentine than that of this film. Because the performances are so good, a lot of the apparent holes are masked. In the end, though, all the motivations and sub-plots we've been led to believe would integrate into the conclusion have little bearing on anything except bloating the film into its too long 130 minute running time. Individually, each piece of the puzzle works just fine and could have made decent plots unto themselves. As a whole, however, they simply serve to complicate the story only to end with the conclusion that was obvious from the start.
Director Gregory Hoblit is a veteran of police procedural television such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He directs Primal Fear with a similar kind of no nonsense efficiency at the film's best moments, but doesn't go far enough, electing instead pile complication on top of complication to extend the case of "The Butcher Boy" way beyond reason. Had he trimmed the hedges a little, focusing more on the direct implications of the crime and the subsequent case, the film could have been a tight, well-acted 100 minute film. There are so many extraneous characters and situations placed into the story that they feel less like red herrings and more like thoughtless padding.
At the beginning of the film, Vail is finishing his representation of a man with a vague connection to organized crime who has been harassed by the police. This is a fine way to begin building Vail's character, but Hoblit goes too far with it. This character he represented has nothing to do with the case at hand but, in Vail's investigation, he uncovers wildly complicated and utterly senseless land deals that the church had made with the city. This clear attempt to put suspects other than Stampler into the minds of viewers is pointless, and amounts to little more than extraneous exposition. The romantic subplot between Gere's Vail and Linney's Janet Venable goes nowhere; there's just no need for this kind of drama when the tenseness of the courtroom should suffice. Without this subplot or that between the church and land developers, the film could have been trimmed to a running time more reasonable for a story of this size.
This "Hard Evidence Edition" of Primal Fear from Paramount is excessively packaged, but good in every way. The anamorphic transfer is strong, with a clear, detailed image and solid natural colors. The surround sound is clear but, as a very dialog-heavy film, there is very little for the rear channels to do. Neither picture or sound are significantly improved from the original release, but both are perfectly adequate. The extras are comprehensive, giving fans all the information they could want on this feature. The case comes packaged in an evidence bag and, though I was afraid to open the bag for fear of tampering, I did finally manage to see the film. This packaging is cute, I suppose, but it's also pointless. The supplementals are, however, mostly well done. The audio commentary with the director and producers starts us off on a bad foot, with them heaping self-congratulatory adulation all over each other the whole time. The three featurettes, on the other had, give us all the most important information from the commentary, but with less hyperbole. The first is a general look at the production through interviews with the cast and crew. Next we have a more detailed look at the casting of Norton and his award-worthy performance. Finally, we hear from a number of forensic psychologists for a brief look at Dissociative Identity Disorder explains the history of the mental illness and its use in court for insanity pleas.
While most of the subplots don't serve the story well, they do allow for the generally excellent performances. Norton is amazing as the confused, rural Southern Stampler, whose stutter and innocent eyes belie something much darker. Gere gives one of the best performances of his career and, though he does have some of the nauseating romantic lead in him for this and the story takes his character in inconsistent directions, he is convincing as the camera-seeking celebrity lawyer. Linney is more of a pawn in the game than she should be, but she does very well with what she's given. While the film focuses on the leads, Andre Braugher (The Mist), John Seda (who would meet Braugher again the following year in Homicide: Life on the Streets), and John Mahoney (Frasier) all turn in good work in their often thankless supporting roles.
While there are plenty of problems in the heavy-handed, overlong story, Primal Fear contains a number of outstanding performances, including the startlingly good debut from Edward Norton. Paramount has released a worthy DVD in this "Hard Evidence Edition" full of solid information for fans of the film and, especially, of Norton.
Primal Fear is guilty of overcooking its plot, but is exonerated by the strength of its performance. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R