Primal Fear: Open-and-Open Case

Events in Primal Fear are like text in a case file, talked about but never shown. Screenwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman understand that the best courtroom films are not about things happening but about how people react to them. The best interpretation I have of the title (which sounds more like a subtropical monster film) is that the film was made aware of this understanding, that crimes mean nothing until people feel something about them. So director Gregory Hoblit made a movie about those feelings based on the novel by William Diehl. John Grisham adaptations, which involve a lot more running around, would do well to get a similar comprehension. Primal Fear would do well to realize what it’s got and utilize it more, and unfortunately that’s not much better.

Around the release of Primal Fear in 1996, Richard Gere was finally growing into his older persona, openly playing the aging, arrogant bastard that was always broiling just beneath those beady eyes, though just as loveable (arguably more so) as his pretense of Lancelot ever was. He was never really the Lancelot type. Against Laura Linney, 15 years his junior, he would continue his stint as the most reputable dadbod in Hollywood. From his 20-year advantage over Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman to his even match with Susan Sarandon in Shall We Dance?, threatened of course by a waxen dance instructor played by J. Lo, only James Bond maneuvers his underage affairs with as much cultural pardon.

Hoblit casts him on the nose as aging but energetic defense attorney Martin Vail. Vail dominates the courtroom but loses grace around young assistant DA Janet Venable (Linney) who long since discovered him to be a steady boss but standoffish bedmate. As his inevitable rival as the attorney for the prosecution, she assaults his case with a lover’s intuition. Primal Fear operates this emotional mechanism well: her successes in court, which should predict Vail’s defeat, serve also to prove how well she knows him, which feels like a victory on a more important front. Their cross-examinations are spiteful repartees, as their after-hours drinks are somber ones. Vail, who became a lawyer mostly to get his face on the evening news, sees a lot of his life choices converge on this particular case.

Part of the problem is that he believes his client, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), to be innocent in the murder of an archbishop. Normally he wouldn’t care, since he considers feeling on the job a flight risk in his chosen profession, which he has interpreted as being the defender of the guilty. “I don't have to believe you,” he tells Aaron during their first visit, “I don't care if you are innocent. I'm your mother, your father, your priest.” Norton’s achingly sincere stuttering sells the honest face with a tragic past that Frances McDormand excavates as a psychiatrist on the case. Vail gets caught up in it despite his better judgment, and before long starts to show a bit of atonement at every strained dead-end, where evidence points to Stampler yet again. Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney of Frasier) assigns Venable to keep Vail on the level in a case that looks foregone but has some rotten whiffs coming up from beneath the floorboards that someone doesn’t want to be investigated. It's TNT drama procedure, but it's procedure because it's so watchable.

Vail’s at the center of more than a simple case in Primal Fear. Hoblit manages to take a spritely charity dinner and suffuse it with hidden terror, as a boys’ choir’s gloomy opera serves as a parody of Vail’s chummy handshakes with the city’s finest smiles. These are the people he used to want to be. Vail discovers that he himself is the fulcrum in all the foul events floating up in the harbor like bad news no one can stop from breaking. Could Stampler’s case unravel a whole decadent tapestry of foul play and pay-offs and deals gone wrong? The archbishop flubbed a high investment housing deal. Stampler had no motive to take him out, but his girlfriend’s gone missing. A Cuban bar owner called Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer) is willing to testify but someone doesn’t want him to.

Does that sound like a good time? It’s all as intriguing as these “kinds” of movies are. Except for a single clever turn, you can sing merrily along to all the events in Primal Fear, as much as in any courtroom insta-drama (just add vacant staring). The characters and the execution of the emotions are all on the level, or just above it. But they never break out and become totally unexpected – even the film’s major twist doesn’t take the audience by surprise when they already know there must be some twist. Even if they didn’t know what it was going to be, when it happens, the audience can’t say, “WHOA! What?!” Instead, they say, “Ahhh, gotcha.”

But Primal Fear isn’t about events. Vail twists the heard-it-before plot into emotional pretzels by knotting together his belief in Stampler’s innocence, his unrequited aims at Venable, and his soft discussions with a journalist in a darkened bar after all the cameras have gone off and silly questions of innocent or guilty can wait till morning. He’s as much a star here as he’s ever been, in a movie not about a businessman proving his youth or a Lancelot his vigor, but an unrequited lover going after a little truth for maybe the first time. It’s a soft-spoken take on shouty trial procedurals. It just defaults on its potential for a greater scope to feel for feeling’s sake, talking like it’s made a grand pronouncement before a jury, when it’s actually at its best deep in a beer after all the exploiters have turned in. Or passed out.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, July 10, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures/Rysher Entertainment

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