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Friday, March 27, 2009
  DVD Review: Primal Fear

I first saw Primal Fear back when it was first released on video a few months after its 1996 theatrical run. I checked it out primarily because I’d heard all sorts of insane hype about some newcomer named Edward Norton who apparently blew everyone else in the movie out of the water (and was subsequently nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar). I don't remember much about the movie other than the twist at the end (which is a big one, and fairly well done), and the fact that Norton was as good as everyone said he was. I hadn’t seen Primal Fear since, and upon revisiting it for this review of Paramount’s spiffy new “Hard Evidence Edition” DVD, I think I know why I couldn’t remember much about it other than those two details: unless you’re a hardcore fan of courtroom dramas, there isn’t much beyond Primal Fear’s twist ending and Norton’s performance to recommend it.

Before I go further, I should mention that I’ll be getting into some spoiler territory in this review. I try to avoid this usually, but Primal Fear is so reliant on the twisty nature of its plot that I can’t really say much at all without ruining some revelation or another. Also, if you haven’t seen this 13-year-old movie yet, but are somehow still interested enough in it to want to go into it fresh, then I really don’t know what else to tell you other than, I guess, stop reading now. (Also, the premise is that Norton plays a shy altar boy accused of murder, and given the attention he gets for his performance – it quite literally made his career – clearly something is going on with his character.)

Primal Fear is a legal thriller based on a novel by William Diehl, about the trial of an altar boy (Norton) accused of murdering a Catholic archbishop in Chicago. He’s represented pro bono by a slick defence attorney (Richard Gere) who usually specializes in defending mobsters and other high-profile sleazebags. The young man is arrested while fleeing the archbishop’s home, covered in his blood – but he insists he didn’t kill him, claiming that he only witnessed the murder. It then becomes a race against time – or more accurately, against the American legal system – as Gere and his team try to solve the mystery of the murder before the prosecution does. And naturally, there’s considerably more to the shy, stuttering altar boy than meets the eye.

My main problem with Primal Fear – and in fairness I should say I’m not into “courtroom thrillers,” as I find movies about law loopholes and obscure legal precedents considerably less than thrilling – is tRichard Gere, Handsome Manhat it’s basically a below-average Law & Order episode drawn out to two hours, only with more violence, swearing and nudity. The only thing that sets it apart is the top-shelf actors who populate the movie. The central mystery of what happened isn’t presented in a way where viewers could try to figure out what’s going on, so you’re really just waiting for Gere to gather evidence piece it all together. But there’s very little in Primal Fear which hasn’t been seen before – Gere as the slick, cynical defense lawyer who doesn’t believe in anything except for his own ability to manipulate people (only it turns out he’s a closet idealist); the excellent Laura Linney as the tough prosecutor (who also happens to be Gere’s ex, natch) who we know is tough because she swears and keeps lighting up cigarettes in places she shouldn’t (though Linney does a solid job with what the script gives her to work with). It’s also unclear what she ever saw in Gere’s character, as he’s only ever an arrogant jerk to her (I think it’s supposed to be “charming,” but he just comes across as a smarmy prick).

There are also a few minor “action sequences,” usually involving Andre Braugher (formerly of Homicide), who plays Gere’s ex-cop investigator, who chases around some guys and gets into a fight or two just to inject a little excitement into the movie. But instead it just makes it seem silly – I admit I don’t know much about the U.S. justice system, but the idea of a high-profile lawyer like the guy Gere plays chasing a potential witness through grimy back alleys and wrestling him to the ground in between court appearances just struck me as ridiculous.

The best thing about Primal Fear is that it’s a hit parade of really talented actors like Norton, Linney, Braugher, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard and John Mahoney (it’s kind of awesome hearing Frasier’s dad swear). Norton, though, is clearly the main attraction here. Relatively early in the film, it’s revealed that his character seems to have a split personality, as he switches from being the overly polite, sweet manchild we’ve been watching to something very different. I really can’t say enough about Norton’s work here – the scene where he initially shows his split personality to Gere is electrifying. Just seeing him switch from a meek, stuttering wallflower to a quick-tempered, violent redneck in a split second is astonishing, even if you know it’s coming. And his final scene with Gere really just confirms how talented he is. It’s not too often that a capital-G Great Actor’s career can be linked to one specific movie (I couldn’t be bothered to look it up on Wikipedia, but I don’t think the list of actors who got an Oscar nomination for their first movie role is particularly long), but Primal Fear is one of those movies.

Overall, if you’re a fan of legal thrillers – or of Edward Norton – this new Primal Fear DVD is likely worth your time. But for a guy who finds legal thrillers tiresome, there wasn’t much more to Primal Fear than the admittedly fantastic acting.



The best thing about the new Primal Fear DVD – which comes in a cool little plastic evidence bag – is the extras. (First, there’s a commentary track from the director, writer, and some producers, but it’s boring as hell; I didn’t make it very far in.) While Edward Norton doesn’t have a reputation for being the easiest actor in the world to work with, he’s a happy participant in this new DVD, which could easily have been billed as the "Edward Norton Edition."

I love retrospective making-of documentaries –watching the cast and crew look back several years (or even decades) to recall their experiences on a movie greatly increases the odds of them just being honest about it. It’s far more interesting to me than the usual “the movie’s about to come out so we better hit the press-junket circuit and talk about how great it is” making-of featurettes on most DVDs. And the mini-doc “Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” is exactly the kind of featurette I love, featuring interviews with Norton, Linney and the filmmakers. Norton and Linney, specifically, have some amusing anecdotes about their experiences on what was a fairly high-profile movie as unknown actors. (Gere, curiously, is absent from all the extras, but he’s not really missed; this is all Norton's show anyway.) The producers discuss the process of putting the film together – and fighting for unknown actors in pretty key roles – through production and release. It’s really interesting stuff for a movie geek like myself.

There’s also a featurette just on casting Norton, called “Star Witness: Casting Edward Norton,” that’s almost as much about Norton’s life as a struggling actor as it is about his being cast (interesting factoid: the producers’ first choice was Leonardo DiCaprio, who eventually passed). Finally, there’s a very cool little piece called “The Psychology of Guilt,” about the mechanics of the insanity plea in the American justice system, and how movies have really blown things like pleading insanity and “multiple personality disorder” (which doesn’t really exist, at least not in the way most people think it does). I love when DVD producers include faturettes like this, that aren’t really about the film itself, but rather provide some real-world context for the fictional story.

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