Written by Senora Bicho
Primal Fear is a courtroom drama that involves a complex plot with many twists and turns. It was based on the first novel in a series by William Diehl featuring the character of Martin Vail.
Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a high-profile defense attorney who defends the dregs of society. He cares more about media attention than innocence, truth, and justice. When a well-known and beloved archbishop is murdered, Vail jumps at the chance to defend the 19-year-old alter boy accused of the crime for all of the attention that the case will garner. He goes to the jailhouse to meet Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) who is a stuttering, meek, young man from a small town. Vail tells him right off that he doesn’t care if he did it or not but will defend him pro bono; Stampler quickly agrees.
Janet Venable (Laura Linney) is the prosecutor on the case who is under enormous pressure by her higher-ups to win the case and get the death penalty. Venable and Vail had a brief affair previously and so both want to win for personal reasons as well.
In the course of the investigation, Vail uncovers that the archbishop was receiving death threats because of a shady real-estate deal and he was sexually abusing the alter boys. He also comes to truly care for Aaron and believes that he is innocent. Aaron claims to have been having blackouts, so Vail hires a psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) to try and uncover the truth. After intense questioning, Aaron turns into “Roy,” an angry and hostile persona that confesses to killing the archbishop. The psychiatrist believes that Aaron suffers from multiple personality disorder. Since the trial is already underway, Vail is unable to change Aaron’s “not guilty” plea to insanity and so he must resort to unorthodox methods to save his client.
This edition comes with several new extras. A commentary tract by director Gregory Hoblit, co-writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch and casting director Deborah Aquila. The commentary is interesting, but it would have been nice to have one of the actors from the film as well. “Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” offers interviews with key people involved with the film including Norton and Linney. “Primal Fear: Star Witness” also has interviews but focuses on the casting of Norton. “Psychology of Guilt” provides factual information on the insanity defense and multiple personality disorders. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
Primal Fear is not a film of special effects or something that needs to be seen on a big screen to be appreciated; however, this Blu-ray version is good to look at considering the source. There is a limited depth of field in most shots causing a soft focus of backgrounds, but the clarity of the facial features helps to enhance the performances. Textures can be seen but not as sharp as current films. The color palette of the production design mainly uses earth tones with muted colors, although this does allow reds, particularly the blood at the murder scene to pop off the screen. The Dolby True HD sound does have much to do with this courtroom drama although the dialogue is clearly conveyed. James Newton Howard’s score sounds great, and it adds a layer to the emotion in the film.
This is an excellent film from the solid writing and intriguing story to the brilliant performances. Gere is at his best as the slick attorney who has his world turned upside down, Linney is perfect as the strong but vulnerable D.A., and I can’t say enough about Norton. Every time he is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him regardless of if he is sweet Aaron or hostile Roy. He is completely believable and engrossing as both characters. McDormand, John Mahoney, Andre Braugher, and Alfre Woodard are also stellar in their supporting roles.
I love Primal Fear and can watch it over and over again. Each time I find something new and interesting or appreciate a scene that I hadn’t previously. If you own a previous version of the movie, the extras offered in this edition are worth the upgrade if you would like more behind-the-scenes information.