Primal Fear January 19, 2021
rimal Fear (1996) is glossy garbage. This should be read as only half a putdown. The movie is styled like a swanky legal thriller á la Jagged Edge (1985) or The Firm (1993), but at its core it’s a frowzy B movie. It’s so reliant on sensational plot twists and increasingly ostentatious acting that after a while it seems less inclined to have anything meaningful to say other than that we should prepare ourselves for
it to have more tricks up its sleeve. We enjoy the film how we would a quickly-churned-out novel from a commercially successful author who specializes in quickly-churned-out page turners with interchangeable, vague titles. It’s a slick distraction.
Richard Gere stars in Primal Fear as Martin Vail, a Chicago defense attorney. Vail has in recent years gotten some notoriety for being the sort of snaky lawyer better than his peers at receiving verdicts that at one time seemed impossible. He’s great at getting influential clients off on technicalities — he's become a go-to for the corrupted-in-trouble. The more salacious, the better. This silver-fox attorney is something of a celebrity (he’s being interviewed for a magazine cover story at the start of the movie, and he regularly appears on television), and he admits late in the feature that he loves the spotlight. Fame is thrilling — almost superseding everything else in the profession. Wanting to maintain it is what gets Vail into inevitable trouble in Primal Fear. As the action is starting
in the film, an archbishop, Rushman (Stanley Anderson), is savagely murdered in his apartment — so savagely that if you were a passerby on the street walking by at the right time, you might've seen his body slammed into a window so hard that it momentarily went convex.
A 19-year-old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), is arrested. He’s found a little ways from the crime scene shaking and covered in blood. Even though interrogations seem to pretty much confirm that no one else could have killed Rushman, Vail decides to take the case. He offers his services to Stampler pro bono; he practically licks his lips thinking about the optics and how he's going to rearrange them. “We have two victims here — no suspect,” he tells reporters with affected earnestness. But eventually he starts to actually
believe Stampler couldn’t have done it — feigned support turns genuine. A Kentucky native, this teenager with a stutter has a deferential, Southern sweetness, and when he says that Rushman became a kind of father figure to him after picking him up off the street and taking him in, Vail wonders if maybe the justice system is being a little too hard on this boy who’s had a difficult life. Primal Fear isn’t going to reward Vail’s optimism, even though it turns out that Rushman had pissed off some very powerful people over real estate before he died. The movie plays with that optimism as if it were one of the mechanical rodents in a Whack-a-Mole game — ready to beat it back into submission but also willing to briefly indulge it to generate some excitement.
Primal Fear is the sort of thriller that, while entertaining on the ride up, above all else hinges on a wild-eyed plot twist. While we might not have anticipated it (I think it has more to do with how the movie, up until the reveal, seemed fairly reasonable), it isn’t a very good one. The more you sit with it, the more it strikes you as silly — cynically contrived. It suddenly creates a labyrinth, though the walls of this maze are made of easy-to-knock-over plastic. And because it also plays into the tired trope of conflating evil-doing with having a mental illness, it additionally strikes you as offensive. When a movie hurls a whiplash-like plot twist at us, it should get us giddy, almost — happily laugh about how the filmmakers did a good job fooling us and continue to be enthusiastic about where they’re going to take us next. But Primal Fear induces more of an eye roll, and after the twist has been let free the movie becomes not enjoyable in the lose-yourself style of exhilaration expected for an escapist big studio thriller but in the style of a fun hate-watch. How is the movie going to continue to devolve?
Most of the devolution happens in the courtroom, and much of it is sped up by Laura Linney. (She plays Janet Venable, the prosecutor and an old flame of Vail’s.) Although her performance is mostly proficient (she’s persuasive as an indomitable lawyer almost as self-satisfied as Vail), she so much leans into the haughtiness expected of a quasi-villainous opponent that by the time we get to the courtroom-set climax, she’s acting almost as ornately as Faye Dunaway was in the most keyed-up moments of Mommie Dearest (1981). She displays a furor so hokey we half-expect her to start laughing and ask the director of the movie, Gregory Hoblit, if it’s really necessary for her to go there. Granted, this stagey anger is a necessity built in by the movie’s screenwriters, Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman: it's used to pressure someone to reveal an incriminating secret on the stand. But the writers seem not to have noticed when they were writing (or maybe they did and thought it would go over well) that when played out this escalation would resemble something more out of an overwrought melodrama from the classic Hollywood era than anything in keeping with the gleaming legal thrillers of the 1990s. Gere fares better than anyone in the movie; I can’t think of a moment in it where he taps into anything that feels too shammy. And Alfre Woodard, who plays the judge, stands out especially at the end of the film, when her unwavering temperance helps bring some balance to the movie’s escalating erraticism.
In his first movie, Norton earned the most acclaim of everyone in the ensemble; he got an Oscar nomination for his work. But this acclaim, I think, is a case of critical powers that be mistaking showiness for quality. Linney’s performance flirts with this but isn’t overwhelmed with the problem. We actually believe her character; when she chain-smokes in exasperation and coolly says things to Vail like “it was a one-night stand Marty — it just lasted six months” as the mic-dropping closing line in a conversation, we’re persuaded by her self-conviction. But I never believed Norton. Vail remarks at one point that Stampler looks like a boy scout to him. But Norton, who simulates the juvenile posture of a young man squished by life and whose porcelain look is more uncanny than natural, never doesn’t seem like a 28-year-old pretending to be 19. This is more performance than embodiment. When you watch Norton, you can’t help but think about what he isn’t. Fundamental dissimilarities aside, I kept thinking of later seasons of Diff’rent Strokes, when star Gary Coleman looked about 45 but notionally was a child who could still sit on someone’s lap. The unnaturalness Norton emanates could be argued as being part of the point, but I’d argue back that that unnaturalness is too distracting to be effective. A smidge of offness would be just right — there’s something not to trust about Stampler
but that something is hard to put a finger on. But Norton’s performance consists only of offness.
Primal Fear is cheaply fun, but some of that fun is weighed down by thoughts of the better movie it could have been. It might have been — spoiler alert — a more nuanced indictment of abuse in the Catholic Church; a more probing study of the Vail character. (He's layered enough, I think, to successfully work as the center of a more minor-key drama in the shape of something like 1981's The Verdict, where the lawyer protagonist's neuroses were put at the forefront of the narrative.) Toward the end of the movie, Vail drunkenly confesses to a journalist he's sitting with at a bar that he sort of gets off on all the publicity he gets. He also admits to having a gambling addiction and being haunted by some past workplace corruption, which he ran away from but nonetheless participated in and didn't later report. He reminisces about why he got into law in the first place; he’s someone who believed and fundamentally still believes that so often people doing bad are actually good people who have made a mistake. At this moment I started craving a more solemn, more-character-than-narrative-driven drama with him as the nucleus. This emotionally articulate scene is wasted as a throwaway moment — a last-minute attempt to give Primal Fear a depth it neither needs nor deserves. C+