Primal Fear

Primal Fear
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Screenplay: Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman (based on the novel by William Diehl)
Stars: Richard Gere (Martin Vail), Laura Linney (Janet Venable), Edward Norton (Aaron/Roy), John Mahoney (Shaughnessy), Alfre Woodard (Shoat), Frances McDormand (Molly), Terry O'Quinn (Yancy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1996
Country: U.S.
Primal Fear
Primal FearA beloved archbishop in Chicago is brutally murdered in his bedroom, stabbed 78 times with a large knife, his eyes gouged out, his body mutilated. A 19-year-old altar boy named Aaron Stampler is found running from the crime scene, covered with the bishop’s blood. He is caught and immediately proclaimed “The Butcher Boy of St. Michaels” by the media. Case closed. Or is it?

Martin Vail (Richard Gere), a self-proclaimed “big shot” lawyer who is introduced as an unapologetic defender of organized crime bosses, rushes to take the case and defend the boy. However, Vail is not a crusader. He’s a spotlight chaser. Even though he knows the boy can’t pay his high price, he doesn’t care. While he likes the money, he likes the media coverage even more, but above that, he likes the challenge. He likes the chance to manipulate people and work with words and facts. “There is no truth,” he says early in the film. “There is only my version of it.”

As the central character in Primal Fear, Vail is cliché from the start. Openly and almost proudly arrogant, he is the staple Hollywood money-grubbing lawyer who the district attorney describes as being “worse than the scumbags [he] defends.” But, because Vail is so morally and ethically low from the outset, you know that he can only improve and come out at the end a changed and, hopefully, better person. Yet, despite the cliché, Vail’s character plays an important thematic role in the way he connects with the other principal characters, all of whom share something in common: They all have two faces. At its heart, Primal Fear is less a legal thriller than it is an exploration of the nature of duplicity, with every major character having more than one side. The beloved archbishop turns out to be a shady investor and a pervert who makes altar boys perform sexual acts with street girls in front of his video camera. Aaron (Edward Norton in an Oscar-nominated debut), the accused boy, wears the face of naïve innocent, but as the plot unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that there is more--possibly much more--to him than what appears on the outside.

Vail’s rival in the courtroom is Janet Venable (Laura Linney), a young assistant district attorney who is trying desperately in make a name for herself. She used to work with Vail, and they were lovers for a short while (another classic courtroom cliché of the highest order). On one face she has the desire to know the truth, but her other face wears her desire to outgun Vail and get out from under his shadow. Both she and Vail are guilty of using the courtroom to settle their own personal vendettas, and thus they are both guilty of betraying the law they proclaim to uphold and justify. Two faces.

With its heady thematic aspirations, Primal Fear is an ambitious film, but also a somewhat muddled one. The theme is noble and intriguing, and although it has been explored in many different arenas, the world of lawyers and courtrooms is a great place for further examination. At times, though, the nobility of its pursuits is buried under extraneous subplots and a narrative structure that frequently makes it feel like something has been left out, as though the film used to be longer and the producers had to edit it by 20 minutes to cut down on the running time.

The film was aptly directed by Gregory Hoblit, who was making his feature film debut after graduating from the ranks of television movies and helming numerous episodes of several Steven Bochco-produced series, including Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and the notorious Cop Rock. He handles the courtroom scenes well, but they tend to be a bit too stagey to be truly convincing, and they never quite build the kind of tension that should put you on edge. To distract attention there is a plethora of red herrings, and some of the subplots are meant to drag your focus away from what’s really going on. Aaron is the classic accused murderer: He looks so innocent you keep saying to yourself, There’s no way he’s guilty. But, then there’s a nagging suspicion: Maybe he looks so innocent because he’s faking it and he’s really guilty. Innocent people never look that innocent. Norton’s performance is so powerful in its mixture of innocence and manipulation that it smoothes over some of the story’s rough patches, and despite the film’s weaknesses, it’s hard not to have some admiration for the brutally honest manner in which the film cuts to black at the tend, leaving us with an image of a man who has been changed, but with enough ambiguity to suggests that we will never truly know how.

Primal Fear "Hard Evidence Edition" Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
  • Audio commentary director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila
  • Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” featurette
  • Primal Fear: Star Witness” featurette
  • “The Psychology of Guilt” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 10, 2009

    Since Primal Fear is just over 10 years old, we would expect it to look pretty good, which is precisely what we get on this high-def Blu-Ray transfer. Drawing on his experience with gritty television series, director Gregory Hoblit gives the film a somewhat rough, desaturated look that emphasizes grays and browns. The image is pleasing and well-detailed, with good color and natural flesh tones. It is a bit soft overall with some evident grain, but it seems like that is the intended look of the film. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack gives ample space for the musical score and ambient effects while ensuring clear dialogue throughout.
    The “Hard Evidence Edition” Blu-Ray of Primal Fear has a good selection of supplements, beginning with a screen-specific audio commentary that features director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila, all of whom were recorded together. The wide array of participants ensures plenty of information and input, although they sometimes tend to talk over each other quite a bit. All the commentary participants also appear in the 18-minute featurette “Primal Fear: The Final Verdict,” which also includes face time with editor David Rosenbloom and stars Edward Norton and Laura Linney (Richard Gere is conspicuously absent). It is a general retrospective featurette with plenty of interesting anecdotes and production stills, although the most intriguing part is a discussion of a much longer early cut of the film that included an entire subplot in which Martin Vail goes to West Virginia to research Aaron Stampler’s roots (unfortunately, there are no deleted scenes included, only stills). “Primal Fear: Star Witness” is an 18-minute featurette that focuses on the now legendary casting of Edward Norton, who was then an unknown actor in New York who won the part over thousands of others. I found “The Psychology of Guilt,” a 14-minute featurette about dissociative identity disorder, to be particularly fascinating. It includes interviews with a judge, a forensic psychologist, and a forensic psychiatrist who discuss the relationship between insanity and the law. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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