Wednesday April 3, 1996
"Primal Fear" makes fools of us and makes us like it. A tight courtroom melodrama that serves up twist after twist like so many baffling knuckle balls, this film handles its suspenseful material with skill and style.
Adapted from a best-selling William Diehl potboiler by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, "Primal Fear" follows top Chicago defense attorney Martin Vail through the case of his life, one with enough ups and downs to reduce Perry Mason to tears. Slick and well-crafted, this film builds up a terrific want-to-know even as it informs us that figuring out what's going to happen is not going to be logically possible.
Accomplishing this feat is director Gregory Hoblit, making his theatrical debut after an extensive career in television that included nine Emmys for his involvement in shows like "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." Lawyers' wiles and the workings of courtrooms are nothing new to him, and he adds a gift for crisp pacing and an attention to quality visible in things like Michael Chapman's cinematography and James Newton Howard's music.
That concern includes Hoblit's way with actors, which extends from offbeat use of familiar faces like John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Steven Bauer and Frances McDormand to getting the kind of polished, spirited performance out of Laura Linney that will surprise those who saw her weak last film, "Congo."
The best choice "Primal Fear" made was casting Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a former prosecutor who is now Chicago's premier defensive specialist, the kind of self-confident, not to say voracious "big-shot attorney" who likes to tell clients: "You've been saving up for a rainy day? It's raining."
Gere's memorable performances, from "An Officer and a Gentlemen" through "Pretty Woman," have always been in roles that saw him as at least initially cold, cocky and heartless. As the ruthless, hyper-focused Vail, a lawyer who practically glows with self-satisfaction and malevolent assurance, Gere is at his peak, the active core of Shagan and Biderman's intense scenario.
So it's typical of the man that while most of Chicago is horrified at the gruesome death of a particularly beloved archbishop, hacked to death via 78 stab wounds, Vail sees it as a juicy career opportunity. "A lot of guys are going to want this one," he tells his staff of two (Andre Braugher, Maura Tierney). But we know who's going to get it.
Caught by police fleeing the scene in bloody clothes (and promptly dubbed "the Butcher Boy of St. Mike's" by an unruly press) is the unlikely Aaron Stampler. An awkward, soft-spoken stutterer from a tiny town in Kentucky, Aaron was an altar boy and a choir member who looked on the archbishop as a surrogate father. Prone to blackouts, moments when he "loses time," Aaron swears he's not guilty but can't account for how the gore got on his clothes.
Aaron Stampler may sound like a familiar character, but a strong performance turns things around. Making his feature debut after the requisite nationwide search is Edward Norton, an actor with a remarkable amount of presence and a gift for tentativeness who turns Aaron into someone baffling and unique.
Aside from his client's goofy personality, Vail faces other courtroom problems. The judge on the case (Woodard) has no patience for his usual shenanigans, and prosecuting attorney Janet Venable (Linney) is both a former colleague and a disaffected former lover. She proves more than Vail's match before the jury and the noticeable sparks their verbal jousting sets off is one of the film's pleasures.
Most of "Primal Fear" takes place while Stampler's trial is going on and Vail is scrambling to defend him. He searches for Aaron's friends, hires a psychiatrist (McDormand) to look him over and wonders whether a contretemps between the state's attorney (Mahoney) and another of his clients (Bauer) has any bearing on this case.
At first Vail takes his usual hands-off "I don't have to believe you, I don't care" attitude with Aaron Stampler. But gradually, he feels an unfamiliar sense of personal involvement, and that adds another, more human, dimension to both his actions and Gere's performance.
"Primal Fear" doesn't linger as it spins its many webs, which is doubtless the best policy with a film so intricately, and at times unbelievably, plotted. The story is always just a bit ahead of us, which is as it should be, and though it is hard to shake the feeling that the picture outsmarts itself with some of its final twists, what's come before is satisfying enough that that seems beside the point to mind.
Primal Fear, 1996. R, for brief grisly violence, pervasive strong language and a sex scene. A Gary Lucchesi production, released by Paramount Pictures in association with Rysher Entertainment. Director Gregory Hoblit. Producer Gary Lucchesi. Executive producer Howard W. Koch Jr. Screenplay by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, based on the novel by William Diehl. Cinematographer Michael Chapman. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. Art director William Arnold. Set designer Cindy Carr. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Richard Gere as Martin Vail. Laura Linney as Janet Venable. John Mahoney as Shaughnessy. Alfre Woodard as Shoat. Frances McDormand as Molly.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times