BP Saturday Night Movie: Primal Fear (1996)

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.

The hunter gets captured by the game.

Part of it also seems to be cultural. The aughts (or my preferred term, the “naughts”) are a time of unease, dominated by war, terrorism and economic chaos. So as far as movies for adults, urban thrillers have been replaced with films such as Syriana (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2008).

These are fears much more primal than anything concerning a young altar boy who allegedly slices up a prominent archbishop. That’s the central crime in Primal Fear–a movie now best remembered for Edward Norton’s emergence as a major actor. (As an aside, you can listen to Norton interview Bruce Springsteen about his new release “The Promise, here.)

It’s also a gimmick movie, with the big reveal at the end that Gere, the master manipulator, has himself been played by Norton, his client. That arc is appealing on a number of levels, primarily because Gere is naturally arrogant–and in this movie, at least he admits as much. Gere draws a portrait of a lawyer who believes he’s a step ahead of everyone, and who grows frustrated if he doesn’t think he has an edge at every moment.

Gere’s an interesting leading man. I wouldn’t call him compelling (and his filmography isn’t inspiring, frankly) and he can be humorless and self-centered. Even in his most famous film, Pretty Woman (1990), it felt like he was struggling to not come off as a jerk, and in his best films, such as An Officer and Gentleman (1983), he lets that unlikeability shine through.

The smartest move about Primal Fear is that, in fact, you don’t become very invested in Gere’s character, or in the trial itself. It’s a movie that views the system as a game and Gere as a player. So even when he gets his comeuppance, it doesn’t feel particularly wrenching or life-changing, say like George Clooney’s character in Michael Clayton (2007)–the best of the few legal-centric movies of the last decade. Here, the story wisely focuses on the mechanics of plot and from the effective performances rather than hitting emotional beats.

I was struck by the comparison to Anatomy of a Murder, which takes a more serious view of the judicial system and seems to be troubled by the fact that it can be exploited. And while Gere wraps his work in sanctimonious, self-serving statements about the power of juries and the Constitution (does he really think Norton’s character is innocent, or does that view simply let him act like he holds the moral high ground?), James Stewart’s small-town lawyer in Anatomy has a more jaundiced view, interestingly, of the system. Unlike Gere, Stewart seems thoroughly unsurprised by Ben Gazzara’s reveal; it feels more like business as usual. In the real world, you’d almost expect these worldviews to be reversed. Gere, the flashy Chicago barrister, shouldn’t have been so easily hoodwinked.

That ease of Norton’s deception makes for a nice Jagged Edge-style twist, but it undermines the rest of the movie. In fact, it’s difficult to accept Norton’s statement at the end that his Aaron persona had never existed as the literal truth–it’s too convenient. The mechanics of the movie for two hours have depended on the reality of that character and on his actions, and to discover that it’s all a fraud makes the viewer ask the question he or she should never ask when a movie is over: Did that actually make any sense?

If Norton is such an evil genius, why did he get caught with blood all over him? If this was the plan all along, why wait until the trial starts to reveal his “multiple personalities” to his lawyer’s psychologist (Frances McDormand.) Most movies, by the way, play it fast and loose with timing, but Primal Fear is particularly guilty. Norton goes to trial in what appears to be record speed. Gere is still being profiled by the same magazine writer at the beginning of the film as near the end.

Those choices may make for more immediate drama but they don’t make for a better film. Primal Fear has a good reputation where many other films from the 90s have become afterthoughts–and it may be undeserved. At the same time, there’s a professionalism that helps keep it above water. Not only Norton and Gere, but Laura Linney as a fully-drawn, nervous, intelligent and downright incredibly sexy lawyer, caught between larger forces. She’s every bit as good as Norton and anchors the movie.

John Mahoney is effective as the State’s Attorney corrupted by power. Andre Braugher tries to make his thankless investigator role into a real person–and Alfre Woodard succeeds in giving force to that most cliched character of all trial-movie cliches, the judge who won’t have this sort of nonsense in her courtroom. (She has a nice, maybe improvised, moment when she pours Linney’s whiskey glass into her own.)

In a sense, isn’t that why some movies become classics, not because of the intricacies of the plot, but because a talented group of actors succeed collectively in elevating the material? If you watch a film such as, say, The Fugitive, another 90s movie set in Chicago, on cable for the 20th time, you’ve stopped even noticing the story; you know how it ends. You sit back and enjoy Harrison Ford’s doggedness or Tommy Lee Jones’ command of every scene he’s in, the camaraderie among the U.S. marshals, or the slinky effectiveness of Jeroen Krabbe.

That’s what a good B-picture does. You come back to it, in spite of yourself.


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