Laura Linney considers the better films that lie ahead.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Steve Shagan (based on the William Diehl novel)
Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney. Edward Norton
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this film blog is that, as my cinema aptitude grows, I can go back and view movies with which I thought I was familiar using, in a sense, new eyes.
I never considered Primal Fear as great art, but I have always enjoyed the performances and the plot, as tangled as it is. Now, however, its strengths, and especially its weaknesses, are clearer to me.
But first a word why movies like this are so appealing. As much as the Western or the heist film, courtroom thrillers are a genre staple. (See Anatomy of a Murder, below). So in one sense, Primal Fear isn’t very interesting at all–and at times it teeters close to the generic: the showy defense attorney, the needy client, the venomous prosecutor, the no-nonsense judge. They are all here.
Movies like these exploded onto the market during the 1990s, much of it fueled by the fiction market ruled by writers such as John Grisham. So beyond Primal Fear (based on a book by William Diehl), you had The Client (1994), the wretched A Time to Kill (1996), which makes Primal Fear feel like The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Rainmaker (1997). You had A Few Good Men (1992) and A Civil Action (1998).
Most of these films provided some satisfaction, mainly in the sort of one-man-against-the-system drama that has always been a cinema hallmark, with a healthy dose of legal mumbo-jumbo, courtroom galleries that frequently gasp in unison, and a broad range of characters.
So where the hell have they gone? The courtroom movie and its cousin, the urban thriller, the likes of which were the province of directors such as Sidney Lumet, seem to have left us and largely have migrated to television. Much of this has to do with the move toward spectacle films and an even fuller embrace of the youth market.