johnlink ranks PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

PRIMAL FEAR is one of those movies that I had never gotten around to watching because I had the twist ruined for me years ago. I’ve always heard it was an excellent film, however, so it has been on my radar for a long time. Finally got around to checking it out.


I watched PRIMAL FEAR (1996) on 8.27.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

Martin Vale (Richard Gere) is a defense attorney with a reputation for defending lowlife criminals. His ex lover, naturally, is the prosecuting attorney (Laura Linney) in charge of burying his new client Aaron (Edward Norton). Aaron is accused of killing an archbishop but, of course, there is much more to the story.

Much of the film centers around Vale beginning to believe his client is innocent and trying to prove such. When Aaron turns out to have a dark secret, the focus of the movie changes. What is interesting about PRIMAL FEAR is that this movie never pretends to be about convicting a killer. This is a film which pits the defense attorney as the protagonist, even as we start to realize that we really should be on the side of the prosecution.

Director Gregory Hoblit does a nice job of preventing this courtroom drama from becoming just a long Law & Order episode. The opening statements by both lawyers is done non-linearly as we see images from the previous night. Some of the questioning of witnesses is done non-linearly as a way of keeping the pace up. Even at 130 minutes, this is a film which does a nice job of skipping the stuff we don’t need to see while also taking its time with some quiet moments which develop character. Norton, particularly, is excellent at slowly drawing the edges of his character until we see the whole picture. And sure, Richard Gere took some kind of drug so that he looks the same in every movie since the early 1990s, but he is effective enough in the cocky role here. It is a persona he would reprise in the recent film ARBITRAGE.


While the former lover story of the two leads is somewhat trite, we soon learn that the scum which Vale is accused of defending aren’t quite so scummy. Where other movies might consider this an unnecessary note for a guy about to learn his lesson, PRIMAL FEAR positions Vale as a guy who actually does have noble aspirations, even if he will only voice those aspirations when he is at his most drunk. He knows that the legend of who he is sells. He admits to liking the money and the attention, they don’t hurt, but he’s more than just a shallow ambulance chaser. At least, that is what the movie wants to sell us on.

Linney’s character is the tragic one. This movie treats her like crap and it takes a strong actress to stand tall as the moral compass of a movie which makes being so an antagonistic act. For a movie which often looks and sounds like a typical courtroom flick, this does a nice job of being unique. Much of the credit goes to a smart script. This is the kind of story which would probably be sanitized into a 48 minute television drama now. While some movies feel unnecessary today thanks to such shows, PRIMAL FEAR is a reminder that long-form courtroom drama still can be very, very good.




FINAL SCORE: 7.5 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on August 28, 2014.

One Response to “johnlink ranks PRIMAL FEAR (1996)”

  1. Mostly good for Norton and the case itself. Everything involving Gere and his whole subplot was kind of just filler. Good review John.

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