Friday, June 25, 2010
Going into watching 1996's Primal Fear, I was quite aware there was a twist coming, and a good one at that. A friend of mine is a huge fan of Edward Norton (making his screen debut) and said the movie was worth watching for his performance alone. That twist toward the end? Just a cherry on top. So with a knowledge that the movie was going to try to trick me in some way, I dove in. It is a solid courtroom drama -- which I'm typically a sucker for anyway -- with a great cast, and an ending that does not disappoint. At a certain point to me at least, it becomes fairly obvious where the twist is coming, and I was able to call it...to a certain degree at least. No spoilers here though, I don't want to ruin it.
One of Chicago's best defense lawyers and more than that, one of the best defense lawyers anywhere, Martin Vail (Richard Gere) has a knack and an ability for getting high-profile clients an acquittal when it seems certain a lengthy jail sentence is heading their way. Never one to shy away from major cases, Vail takes one that seems like a slam dunk for state district attorney Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) and his two assistants, Janet Venable (Laura Linney) and Bud Yancy (Terry O'Quinn). A 19-year old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Norton) is accused of brutally murdering the archbishop. But as Vail digs into the case and examines all the evidence, it seems the archbishop was involved in some deep, dark stuff that goes much deeper than he thought.
The courtroom drama is a movie genre all to itself, and more than that in TV shows, novels and theatrical plays. When that drama is handled the right way, it can be a riveting experience watching two sides butt heads for the jury's expense. 'Primal' does everything a courtroom drama should and for that reason alone is worth watching if you like that type of movie. The trial sequences are quick-moving and never drag, keeping you guessing at to Vail and opponent and former girlfriend Linda's intentions. On top of that, playing a prosecutor or a defense attorney has to be a favorite for actors everywhere. The camera is on them almost exclusively with nothing to distract them.
Lost in the quality of that drama and the story is what a good performance Gere turns in. He's vain, egotistical, arrogant, a blatant self-promoter and one who never steps away from the limelight. And you know what? He's still likable. It's easy to see why Gere's Vail is such a good lawyer. He is charming, very intelligent and able to twist things to his own advantage no matter the odds stacked against him. Linney matches Gere as his female counterpart in the courtroom, giving Linda a self-confident, sexy vibe. The rest of the cast includes Frances McDormand as Molly, a psychiatrist brought in to examine Aaron, Alfre Woodward as Shoat, the presiding judge, Andre Braugher as Goodman, Vail's investigator, and Steven Bauer as Pinero, a high-ranking local hood who may or may not have more involvement in the case than he's letting on.
But making his screen debut, Norton is the surprise out of left field here. Without giving it away, I can say the twist involves his character. Working with huge talents like he does here, Norton still has a way of having all the attention focus on him. Granted, hindsight is 20-20, but it's easy to see that he was destined to be a star, and it is a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he somehow lost to Cuba Gooding Jr from Jerry Maguire). His Aaron is a country boy from Kentucky trying to survive in the big city. He's a naive young man who talks with a stutter and clearly has some personal demons from his past that he struggles to deal with. A great performance that with Gere's carries the movie.
Beyond the acting and story, 'Primal' benefits from the on-location shooting in Chicago, and not just some of the more glamorous locations you might be used to seeing on film or in TV shows. Some gritty locations add to the more realistic feel of the movie which is also added by a score from James Newton Howard that has a throwback feel to it, something out of a 40s film noir. All these elements come together in this engrossing courtroom drama aided by a deep, strong cast and a solid story that keeps you guessing right till the end.
Primal Fear <---trailer (1996): ***/****