Thursday, January 30, 2014

Primal Fear (1996)(Minor Spoilers Review)

**This review contains MINOR spoilers, no major twists or reveals**

In Chicago, a young Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is the prime suspect in Archbishop Rushman’s (Stanley Anderson) murder. Archbishop Rushman is a powerful and respected member of the community, who took care of Aaron as a child.

During his tenure as an altar boy, Aaron lived a life of safety and protection with his girlfriend, Linda (Azalea Davila), so if Aaron is the murder, then why did he turn on his mentor and father figure? The state attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) and Bud Yancy (Terry O’Quinn) are pushing for the death penalty, and they select Janet Venable (Laura Linney) as the prosecutor.

A famed defense attorney named Martin Vail (Richard Gere) agrees to represent Aaron free of charge. With help from his team of trusted associates Tommy Goodman (Andre Braugher), Naomi Chance (Maura Tierney), and Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), a psychiatrist, Martin vows to clear Aaron of all charges. Shaughnesy and Yancy are still holding a grudge against Martin for his decision to quit his job as a prosecutor, and Martin is forced to deal with some bitter feelings from Janet, because Martin and Janet shared a one night stand in the past.

Martin’s mission to win the case for Aaron takes a series of unexpected turns, when Martin discovers Shaughnessy’s ties to old land deals, the Archbishop’s influence over the land deals, and Joey Pinero’s (Steven Bauer), a local thug and one of Martin‘s clients, involvement  in the land deals. Martin has plans to use a controversial tape as the clincher to prove Aaron’s innocence, but things change, when Roy, Aaron’s violent and sadistic alter ego, emerges……..

You’ll see one of the best performances in Edward Norton’s career here, and for those of you, who don‘t know, Primal Fear is Edward Norton‘s first feature film. As Aaron, Norton is this broken and paranoid victim, who’s looking for a shoulder to lean on, but in the blink of an eye, Norton switches gears to become Roy. As Roy, Norton is this hateful sociopath, with a nasty mean streak, and Roy won’t hesitate to rip your head off. Norton’s versatile performance is something to admire, and Norton’s Aaron gives Derek Vinyard in American History X a tough challenge for the best performance in his career.

Richard Gere is a solid leading man as Martin. Martin is a persistent defense attorney, who refuses to quit, and he’s willing to risk everything to save Aaron. Martin will put his toes on line, but he never crosses it, and Gere’s convincing performance will persuade you to believe in Martin’s motivations and his point of view on life, and the legal system.

Laura Linney is believable, as the merciless prosecutor, who’s holding a grudge against Martin. Mahoney’s Shaughnessy is a corrupt and nasty authority figure, who abuses his powers, and Alfre Woodard (Judge Shoat) is the strict no-nonsense judge. Steven Bauer? I can’t say too much about him, because Bauer’s screen time is limited to here and there appearances. McDormand is a suitable choice for her role, but McDormand’s character is overshadowed by Norton, Gere, and others during her screen time. 

Primal Fear is loaded with sub-plots. Aaron’s relationship with Archbishop Rushman, Roy taking control of Aaron, Joey and his legal troubles. But if I had to pick a stand-out favorite, I would go with the feud between Janet and Martin. Janet resents Martin for his holier-than-thou attitude.

Martin’s act as the defense attorney, who’s motivated by a good will mission can’t fool Janet, because she knows Martin is motivated by money and big headlines. There’s a scene, where Janet is about to light up a cigarette in the halls of the courthouse. Martin tries to lecture Janet about respect, but Janet knocks Martin off of his soap box, when she pulls out a magazine with Martin’s picture on the cover. Martin tries to play the role of protector for Janet. Martin pushes Janet to follow his lead, and leave Shaughnessy, because Janet is just dancing around on strings, with Shaughnessy and Yancy as the puppeteers. But Janet won’t budge, because she’s still holding on to some bitter feelings for Martin. Linney and Gere did a good job of selling the friendly rivalry between Janet and Martin, and they provide most of the laughs in Primal Fear during a handful of back and forth bickering scenes.

Primal Fear is a sturdy crime thriller with a few good twists and turns along the way, and the final shocker is guaranteed to blow you away. Aaron’s big moment on the stand as the final witness doesn’t live up to expectations. I give Norton, Gere, and Linney all the credit in the world for doing their best to make it work, but I couldn’t feel anything during the big moment(s). Still, it’s hard to complain about missed opportunities during Aaron’s time on the stand, because the big twist at the end provides a satisfying pay-off. Primal Fear is worth the time for Edward Norton’s nutty performance, and you’ll see why he earned his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Rating: 8/10

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