Richard Gere is Martin Vail. Vail is an egotistical hot shot lawyer who is looking more for news cameras than an innocent client. The truth is, he doesn’t give a crap if they did it or not. His only concern is what the case can do for him. He thrives on front page magazine articles and sound bites on the 6:00 news. It’s no surprise that when Vail sees a headline making case unfold live on the television, he chases the case. The entire city of Chicago witnessed police chase 19 year old altar boy Aaron through the railroad yards. He was running, soaked in blood, from the brutal murder of the local Archbishop Rushman. Vail moves in on the case like a shark attracted to blood. Unfortunately for all involved, the case will test his own patience and motives. There’s evidence of corruption leading into a who’s who of city fathers. There’s the expected church sex scandal. There might even be ties to Vail’s most recent case where he got a client a $1.5 million settlement from the city. All of this just feeds Vail’s drive and ego. He sees it as a chance to stick it to his nemesis, Schaughnessy, the district attorney who was once his boss. Schaughnessy is played quite convincingly by John Mahoney, best known as father to the Frasier boys. What a difference a role makes. The opposing attorney is his former girlfriend and coworker, Janet Venable (Linney). Vail is so focused on these huge possibilities that he’s blind to what might be right in front of his face. He navigates these dangerous waters with relish. But he never saw the truth coming.
Actor Edward Norton first came to my attention in the heist film, The Score. I hadn’t heard a lot about the bright young actor, but I remember that he impressed me quite a bit. When you consider he was playing along with the likes of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, that’s no small achievement. Somewhere along the way I missed the 1996 release of Primal Fear. Based on the William Diehl novel, the film would be the first major feature to star Norton. It was a breakout character and a breakout performance. He deservedly was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, one he likely should have received. Norton wears the skin of this troubled teen so closely and so effectively that it can be quite chilling at times to watch. Richard Gere might have been the bankable star for this movie, but Edward Norton walked away with the whole thing in his back pocket, and has never looked back. This was also the first feature for television director/writer Gregory Hoblit. Hoblit was best known then as the Steven Bochco protégé who worked on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. His gritty attention to detail made him a perfect fit for these ultra realistic cop dramas, but perhaps it was his work on Bochco’s legal drama L.A. Law that better prepared him for the legal thriller Primal Fear. The combination would be a formidable one, and it makes me rather sorry I missed out on this one at the box office back in 1996.
The final surprise in the film, I will leave for you to discover. The truth is that it’s not so clever and unique as these filmmakers believed it to be. Hoblit should have known better. The same device was explored on his own show, Hill Street Blues, and on at least one of the Law & Order shows. What makes this work isn’t the clever ending at all. It’s Edward Norton. The technique might have been done before, but I promise you no one’s done it better than this, before or since. That’s why you want to see this film. Forget all of the cute twists and turns. Never mind the standard courtroom drama. Don’t even thing about the red herrings that will get tossed your way like pies at a Three Stooges festival. None of it will matter or even register for very long. When Norton’s on the screen you simply can’t take your attention or your eyes off of him.
The film didn’t do terribly well at the box office. It returned a fair $60 million from a $30 budget. Complete with foreign sales, the film just did break the $100 million mark. But it barely makes the top 1000 films for receipts and was the 27th best film for that year. It’s no real surprise I missed it when it ran. You very likely missed it then as well. Gere was a well enough known name, but mostly for the romantic comedy roles. And no one had heard of Edward Norton at that time. A lot’s changed since then. It’s a must see.
Primal Fear is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The only trouble is that this image tends to be rather inconsistent. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the release. I noticed the same problems on the Blu-ray, even more so. When the picture is good, it’s pretty good. The courtroom scenes are sharp and solid. However there are many moments when colors appear to be washed and the focus becomes incredibly soft and ill defined. It’s likely Hoblit finding his feature legs, or a not so good attempt at artistic license. During these moments flesh tones particularly look rather pale. You have to take it when you can get it on this one. There is some grain evident mostly in darker scenes. It’s fitting and never to the point of distraction. Black levels are fair only.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a near perfect job. There’s not a lot of surrounds, nor should there be. The sound does tend to have a fullness that allows for that immersive experience I look for in audio tracks. The sound engineer really captured the quality of the settings. The courtroom scenes have just the right amount of reverb to fit in with the wood and higher ceilings. The jail cells have a tremendous cement wall feel to them. Rarely does a sound engineer catch these rooms so perfectly. Usually they merely go for quality and don’t match it so much with the action.
There is an Audio Commentary staring Hoblit and a cast of his fellow crew members. It’s engaging enough, but don’t expect anything here you can’t get in the features section.
Primal Fear – The Final Verdict: This 18 minute feature is the typical cast and crew love fest for the film and for each other. They recognize the quality of the film, but it gets old watching the people who made it rattle on about just how good it is. There’s talk about struggling through a bad initial script that had Gere threatening to walk. Linney expresses that it was Gere who had the entire film on his shoulders. Sorry, dear lady, if he did, Norton did a good job of taking that burden.
Primal Fear – Star Witness: Another 18 minutes, this time all concentrated on Norton and his character. There’s some good stuff here, including Norton’s audition footage. A lot of time is spent talking about the audition process. Norton’s gotten a reputation, since, of being very difficult to work with. It was nice to see him acknowledge how lucky he was, as were we, that he got the part and what it’s done for his career.
Psychology Of Guilt: This is a very nice piece on the history of the insanity defense. The truth is that it’s seldom used and very nearly impossible to win. You don’t have to prove you’re crazy. Hell, anybody who chops up another person is obviously crazy. It’s the ability to tell right from wrong. Check it out and learn something.
It’s hard to imagine that Leonardo DiCaprio was originally cast in the Aaron role. Edward Norton needs to send that man a case of whatever his favorite drink is every time he gets a new movie deal. DiCaprio turned them down because he was tired. We need to tire that boy out more. What was intended to be a courtroom thriller turns into a mesmerizing character study. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself. “Even when your mother tells you she loves you, get a second opinion.”