Movie Review: Primal Fear (1996)

  • Director: Gregory Hoblit
  • Starring: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, and Frances McDormand
  • Genres: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
  • Star Rating: ★★★★☆

So I’ve begun the journey of watching Laura Linney’s filmography since she’s one of those actresses that I’ve always enjoyed and inspired to emulate in my own acting journey and I finally got around to watching Primal Fear.

I realize the film is a popular one, garnering numerous awards, most notoriously for Edward Norton who got a supporting actor nomination for his first ever feature film role. But for some reason or other, I had never really heard about it or knew what it was about.

By title alone I had assumed it would be a horror film, and in some regards it is, but more so it is a neo-noir legal thriller.

When the Archbishop is murdered by a seemingly innocuous boy named Aaron Stampler (Norton) it sets the whole town ablaze with rumor and speculation. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) a high-profile defense attorney, is quick to take the case for its notoriety and desire to defend everyone to his fullest ability. This puts him head-to-head with the prosecutor of the case, his ex (maybe current?) flame, Janet Venable (Linney).

Stampler is the prime suspect of the murder given he ran away full-speed covered in blood from the crime scene. After getting arrested by the police, it doesn’t take long to discover there is more to Aaron than meets the eye, namely, his split personality “Roy”, as discovered by psychiatrist Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand).

Except, at the end of the film we learn that Aaron never really existed at all and all of this was propagated by Roy, the split personality divide and sweet, stuttering Aaron was a creation to get away with the crime.

Vail is left staring into the abyss, realizing, “my God what have I done?”

It’s a cynical film for sure. The ending alone makes it that way as it undoes every bit of good Vail had striven so hard to do only to discover that he has actually helped a monster escape justice. All the performances are top-notch and the pacing never leaves you bored despite the long run time.

Though I was a little disappointed by the lack of use for Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney’s characters who are little more than Vail’s puppets often show shuffling papers, especially in Maura’s case, had they not been in the film it would have made little to no difference which is a shame as the two are both terrific actors.

I also could have done without the side plot involving Pinero as it didn’t serve much purpose to the rest of the film and I failed to follow along in the politics of his case and Vail’s war with his old firm.

Overall I greatly enjoyed Primal Fear. Though it’s not a film I think I would rewatch on the regular. It’s an intriguing storyline and one of the first I believe, to utilize the “multiple personality disorder” trope which has become somewhat hokey nowadays with the way it’s often attributed and used in most films.

It succeeded in what it was meant to do, which is to tell a tightly-woven, fast-paced, high profile crime story. Gere is charming as ever as the slick and egotistical Vail and Linney a stable and riveting counter to him.

Also an honorable mention to Alfre Woodard as Judge Shoat for being Alfre Woodard.

Primal Fear is streaming now on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Epix.

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