By Marc S. Sanders
If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles. Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster). There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona. American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin. Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display. Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.
I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made. My impression of the film is that it is well cast. Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop. His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police. This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono.
Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate. He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story. Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part. He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger. When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries. Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent. Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”
The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop. He’s a nobody. It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt. That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web.
Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound. The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law. What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents. Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.
A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play. After all, where there’s murder there is motive. The math is not that simple though.
To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable. She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin. Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net. The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two.
Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second. Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film. Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky. Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie. Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory.
Gere is superb with the conceit of the character. Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse. It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is. When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next. The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.
Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers. Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred. Some are there to distract you. Some are there to circle back around in the third act. There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony. There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation. We’ve seen it all before. Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film. I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery. It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders.
The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me. That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie. If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you. Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.