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Primal Fear

A densely plotted, very 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. Sparked by a standout turn by screen newcomer Edward Norton as the accused killer, this looms as a reasonable spring B.O. entry for Paramount.

A densely plotted, very 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. Sparked by a standout turn by screen newcomer Edward Norton as the accused killer, this looms as a reasonable spring B.O. entry for Paramount.

Pic marks the feature directorial debut of Gregory Hoblit, a nine-time Emmy winner for producing and directing the likes of “Hill Street Blues,””L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” Point-making approach here is similar to that of those involving, high-minded series, with primary attention being paid to the conflicts and ironies that can arise between the truth in a case and the practical matter of obtaining a judgment in the American legal system.

At particular issue here is the eagerness of a publicity-seeking attorney to defend and spring a murder suspect who, from all appearances, is guilty as hell. Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a hotshot Chicago lawyer who used to work for the state but switched to the opposing table when he realized that was where he could grab fame and fortune.

Opening reel deftly sketches his high-profile status as an arrogant media favorite and womanizer who has connections all over town. The city is convulsed when the popular archbishop of Chicago is gruesomely butcheredin his bedroom. When 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.

Although Aaron admits he was in the room when the archbishop was killed, he insists a third party did the awful deed. Vail comes to believe him, but when Aaron’s halting, evasive manner makes Vail suspect the kid is holding something back, he 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 by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, working from a novel by William Diehl. The trial, which takes up a good deal of the second half, pits Vail against prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), a recent lover of his who, one senses, was made a shade more bitter and disenchanted by Vail’s callous treatment.

Unsurprisingly, the courtroom provides the setting for fireworks of numerous stripes, including some involving the archbishop’s seamy extracurricular activities with his teenage wards, the church’s antagonistic posture toward some big money interests and the vulnerability of the legal system to manipulation by fiendishly clever individuals with their own agendas.

The major jolt is saved for the very end but, like much else in the film, it is overexplained and underlined when more simplicity and quiet would have provided the revelation with the power of a depth charge. The points the picture makes are troubling, to be sure, but aren’t likely to be pondered by viewers for long after emerging from the theater. Pic has some immediate force, but not much resonance, largely because priority is given above all else to legal issues, which can be fascinating while grappling with them but, in this case at least, don’t have great staying power.

What people will tend to remember most is the gripping debut of Norton, a young theater actor who, as the meek country boy who only slowly reveals that there is more to him than meets the eye, exhibits outstanding technique and range. At first exposure, he seems a potentially great chameleon actor like Dustin Hoffman.

Gere breezes through the cocksure portion of his role and is impressively forceful in several confrontation scenes, although he comes up a bit short in the crucial department of making the moral consequences of his opportunistic behavior entirely felt. Linney is excellent as the attractive prosecutor who likes to think she’s tough enough for her job but is still unsettled by the shafting she gets from both men and the system, which are often the same thing. McDormand, Alfred Woodard as the judge, John Mahoney as the state’s attorney and Steven Bauer as an underworld client of Vail all do vivid work in prominent supporting roles.

Hoblit’s direction is ultra-attentive to story points and prone to cram in character wrinkles wherever it can. All tech contributions are sharply pro.

Primal Fear

(Suspense drama -- Color)

  • Production: A Paramount release presented in association with Rysher Entertainment of a Gary Lucchesi production. Produced by Lucchesi. Co-producer, Robert McMinn. Executive producer, Howard W. Koch Jr. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Screenplay, Steve Shagan, Ann Biderman, based on the novel by William Diehl.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Michael Chapman; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, James Newton Howard; production design, Jeannine Oppewall; art direction, William Arnold; set design, Erin Kemp, Mark Poll, Louisa Bonnie; set decoration, Cindy Carr; costume design, Betsy Cox; sound (Dolby), Steve Cantamessa; associate producers, Arnold Rudnick, Patricia Graf; assistant director, J. Stephen Buck; casting, Deborah Aquila, Jane Shannon. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, March 20, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 129 min.
  • With: Martin Vail ... Richard Gere Janet Venable ... Laura Linney Shaughnessy ... John Mahoney Shoat ... Alfre Woodard Molly ... Frances McDormand Aaron/Roy ... Edward Norton Yancy ... Terry O'Quinn Goodman ... Andre Braugher Pinero ... Steven Bauer Stenner ... Joe Spano Martinez ... Tony Plana Rushman ... Stanley Anderson Naomi ... Maura Tierney Alex ... Jon Seda