Turn Back the Clock


Primal Fear

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                I first saw Primal Fear after watching Edward Norton’s amazing performance in American History X.  I remember talking about him with a friend and this friend directed me toward Ed Norton’s first film appearance, saying, “If you thought that was good, you’re gonna love this.”  He was right and Primal Fear has become one of those movies that I have to watch every time I see it scheduled on television.  Now, I own the film on DVD.

                In Primal Fear, Richard Gere is Martin Vail, a defense attorney despised by many for his arrogant nature and his propensity to defend some of the least desirable members of the Chicago community.  In Martin’s mind, he is actually doing good.  Having left the prosecutor’s office, disdaining its leaders as corrupt politicians out to destroy people for their own nefarious means, Martin takes cases of people who tend to strike out against the establishment.  In Martin’s eyes, good people sometimes do bad things…plus the money and publicity are great.

                But Martin’s next case has nothing to do with money.  Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a nineteen year old choir boy, has been arrested for murder.  Witnessed running from the scene of a horrific crime in which Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) has been brutally murdered.  Taking the case pro bono, Martin reassures his client that he doesn’t care about his guilt, but Aaron’s sincere statements regarding a third party lead Martin to believe that Aaron is telling the truth.

                For Defense Attorney Venable (Laura Linney), Aaron is a nightmare.  Other than being covered in blood and fleeing the scene of the crime, Aaron presents himself as a stuttering, sweet-looking, good natured choir boy who loved the Archbishop for getting him off the streets and away from his abusive father.  There is no motive here as far as they can tell and that frustrates Venable, former girlfriend of Martin Vail, to no end.

                Unfortunately, from the start, the case is going well for the prosecution.  Aaron’s insistence that a third party was at the scene is proven wrong.  Aaron’s assertion that he had been returning a book to the Archbishop’s personal library turns out to be an incriminating statement.  Decoding a message carved into the Archbishop’s chest, the police have found a book with a passage underlined that offers up a possible motive for murder.  Where was this book found?  The Archbishop’s personal library, of course.

                Martin decides to bring in a psychiatrist (Francis McDormand) to check out his client.  He soon learns that Aaron may have had a good reason to kill the Archbishop – a sex tape is found in which the Archbishop forces Aaron to have sex with a woman and another member of the choir (Jon Seda).  When the tape is mentioned to Aaron, another personality emerges – that of tough guy Roy, a man who takes care of things when weak Aaron can’t.  Can Martin prove that Aaron was not in his right mind when he killed the Archbishop…and how can he even try when he’s already submitted a plea of not guilty?

                I was impressed with Edward Norton’s performance in this film…even more so when I learned that Aaron’s stutter, as well as many of Roy’s scenes, were improvisations by Norton himself.  This is almost never heard of in a new actor’s case and I applaud the director for allowing Norton such control over his character.  Richard Gere’s character is an arrogant son of a bitch, but we also see a side of him that offers a hint of a good guy hiding under a shell of arrogance and indulgence.  (Could that be the meaning behind the last name…a misspelled veil?)  We actually root for Martin and for Aaron to win the case, especially after seeing the tape.

                That’s what makes the ending such a shocker.  It’s the surprise ending of Primal Fear that makes it a must see film.  I remember the mouth-dropping moment…I don’t want to give too much away, but the final moments of Primal Fear make us realize that we, as an audience, have been duped.  It is here that we realize just what a great actor Norton is and what a twisted mind William Diehl, author of the book the film is based on, actually has. 

                Though my new DVD version of Primal Fear doesn’t have any real extras included with the film, I am incredibly happy with my purchase…’cause now I get to watch the movie whenever I feel like it.  And that shocking ending just never wears off!


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