I ignored this movie for nearly two decades because of the trite hyperdrama of its title, but once I watched it, 1996’s Primal Fear made my “buy it on DVD” list.
Richard Gere is astounding in his role as a traumatized one-time prosecutor who has become a cynical defense attorney. He’s slick and naive by turns, in an utterly believable way. Gere’s a veteran, with a lot of experience in playing exactly this kind of likable cad—and yet newcomer Edward Norton blows him away with his performance as a shy altar boy, caught up in the political and judicial grindstone of a media-circus trial.
Norton’s Aaron Stempler is a stuttering, quiet nonentity until he is found unconscious at the scene of a brutal murder. The victim, beloved local celebrity Archbishop Richard Russman (played by Stanley Anderson, who also appears with Norton in Red Dragon), has been repeatedly stabbed and mutilated, with a cryptic message carved into his chest. Stempler’s bloody footprints lead police from his unconscious body directly to the crime scene, and his clothing is drenched with Russman’s blood.
Yet his attorney, Martin Vail (Gere), is ready to believe him when he says he doesn’t remember the crime, but that a third party was in the room the night Russman was murdered. Stempler’s painfully shy mannerisms, sweet appearance and general air of innocence contribute to Vail’s conclusion that this young man is being railroaded. And it doesn’t take long for supporting information to emerge.
For one thing, the Archbishop was directly responsible for a loss of millions of dollars to a development project in which District Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) was heavily invested. The DA has assigned Vail’s ex-wife, Janet Venable (Laura Linney), to prosecute—perhaps believing that she, of all people, will be able to see through his razzle-dazzle—and there are hints of potential defense witnesses being sequestered or removed from the city.
Other altar boys, residents of a charity shelter, and Stempler’s girlfriend have vanished, all at the same time. Each person Vail considers as a possible source of information or testimony—or the mysterious third party who was present that night—seems to have disappeared. As Vail’s frustration builds, he lashes out at everyone. Reporters, assistants, and especially his icy-calm ex-wife opponent bear the brunt of his rage as Vail struggles to find a way out for his victim-client.
If the story seems to lag a bit whenever the action moves from the holding cell or courtroom, I believe this is due less to plot weakness than it is to the strength of Norton’s and Gere’s performances. Certainly, Linney’s “raging calm” would be considered a stellar performance without the overwhelming brilliance of the two men. Instead, her controlled tension serves to support their strength. Likewise, Frances McDormand uses an understated precision to portray the psychologist who examines Norton, revealing with carefully nuanced expression and body language her evolving assessment of this jailed altar boy.
Despite the riveting performances, though, one thing nagged at me throughout the film. Why Primal Fear? The title (which is appropriate once you’ve seen the film, if not before) does a great disservice to all involved. Perhaps it refers to the terror that the producers felt when they had to cast a relative unknown in such a pivotal role as Aaron Stempler. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Wil Wheaton both turned down the chance to play Aaron.)
Primal Fear is a crime-drama feast. Don’t make the mistake I did—ignore the lame title, this movie is miles better than its name.