A densely plotted, talky murder-case drama with some well-placed twists, Primal Fear resembles a high-end telefilm. Crammed with critical insights into the complicity, hypocrisy and compromises of big-city ruling elites and the selfishly misguided motives of celebrity attorneys, slickly produced film has plenty to say, but does so a bit insistently and obviously.
Pic marks the feature directorial debut of Gregory Hoblit, a nine-time Emmy winner for producing and directing the likes of Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue. Point-making approach here is similar to that of those involving, high-minded series.
Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a hotshot Chicago lawyer who used to work for the state. When the popular archbishop of Chicago is gruesomely butchered in his bedroom, and one of his altar boys, Aaron (Edward Norton), a shy, former street kid, is instantly picked up fleeing, blood-soaked, from the scene, Vail, with the eagerness of an ambulance chaser, volunteers to represent him.
Aaron insists a third party did the awful deed. Vail brings in a shrink (Frances McDormand), to whom Aaron reveals a second personality, that of a vicious, violently tempered thug. This is the first surprise sprung in the well-crafted, if verbose, screenplay from a novel by William Diehl.
Norton, a young theater actor, exhibits outstanding technique and range. Gere breezes through the cocksure portion of his role and is impressively forceful in several confrontation scenes. Laura Linney is excellent as the attractive prosecuter who likes to think she’s tough enough for her job.
1996: Nomination: Best Supp. Actor (Edward Norton)