Primal Fear (1996)
Sometimes you come across courtroom dramas camouflaged as thrillers – a format which rarely succeeds. Primal Fear, on the other hand, is a thriller camouflaged as a courtroom drama – which turns out to be a surprisingly effective formula.
Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a ruthless defence attorney who isn't necessarily concerned with morals or truth when getting his clients acquitted. He is the best in the business, and so when the city's renowned and respected archbishop is found brutally murdered and the 19-year-old choir boy Aaron Stampler is arrested, Martin doesn't hesitate to take him on. But what at first looks like a clear-cut case turns out to be more challenging and emotionally disturbing than he is used to.
Although Primal Fear is marketed as a Richard Gere film, this is just as much a story about Aaron Stampler, played by newcomer Edward Norton. Gere gives our protagonist credibility and a fair amount of depth, and isn't as static as he sometimes can be. Still, it's his co-star Norton who steals this show and is the film's ace up the sleeve. His detailed, enigmatic performance is delicately ostentatious. And it's also thanks to Norton that the character's extravaganza doesn't kill of the more human side of this story.
Like The Usual Suspects from the year before, Primal Fear is no run-of-the-mill thriller. Rather, it's both a nuanced portrait of the mechanisms of law as well as an in-depth character study. Add to that the clever premise written by novelist William Diehl and adapted to the screen by Steve Shagan, and you have a combinations close to a stroke of genius. The comprehensive manner in which the courtroom drama is presented gives the audacious finale the solid foundation it needs to work. It's effective, alluring and borderline groundbreaking filmmaking.
Original review © 20.12.99 Fredrik Gunerius Fevang