Download:: Reframe: Primal Fear
There’s no way around it, Primal Fear is pulp. I don’t mean that as a pejorative—I love pulp. But boy, does Primal Fear lay it on thick, especially if you look at it on paper. The premise is full of any number of genre tropes: the oily lawyer who will defend the lowest of the low, a sensational and gruesome murder, a defendant with dissociative disorder (called multiple personality disorder at the time of the film’s release), a sex scandal involving the Catholic Church, and even a formerly married prosecutor and defense attorney facing off against each other. All of that comes before a wild plot twist at the end that had jaws hanging to the floor back in 1996. Let’s just say Primal Fear is a lot.
But as Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a film is about, it’s how it is about it.” And I’ll be damned if Primal Fear isn’t all about it. When we first see Richard Gere’s barely legal eagle, Martin Vail, we watch him working out a deal for a local Chicago gangster played by Steven Bauer. From the first second Vail is seen in action, we know immediately how perfectly cast Gere is. There’s always been something amoral and not entirely trustworthy about Gere, and the role of Vail suits this very specific actor perfectly.
At that point in his career, Gere was settling into a rather terrific middle age. The salt and pepper hair added a level of gravitas that the younger Gere sometimes struggled to pull off. While still ridiculously handsome, the signs of the passage of time on his face take away the callow youth and anxiety that marked his earlier performances. You can see the former pin-up settling into himself as an actor. Regardless of the film’s sensational and lurid aspects (or maybe because of) Gere gives one of his finest showings here. In fact, he’s so good, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of the deeply (and joyfully) cynical Martin Vail.
But what happens when the cynic starts to believe in another, defends them to the hilt, only to be given a gut punch just as they achieve their most fantastic courtroom victory? If ever there was a film elevated by their lead actor, surely it is Primal Fear.
And let’s be clear, Gere gets plenty of help, especially from Edward Norton whose star-making turn as the seemingly innocent of heart Aaron Stampler resulted in an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Norton was a relative unknown at the time of Primal Fear’s release, but that changed almost as soon as the film hit theaters that spring. Norton didn’t just pull a veil over Vail, he did the same to every moviegoer in the movie house. Make no mistake, if Norton’s performance as Vail’s seemingly simple-minded defendant doesn’t work, neither does the movie.
Working from a razor sharp screenplay adapted from a William Diehl novel, director Gregory Hoblit (operating at a marvelous B-movie Sidney Lumet level) orchestrates a sly and, eventually, wicked dance between Gere and Norton. Both performances are entirely dependent on one another. The audience must believe that Gere believes that Norton really is playing a sweet young man with a dark alter ego, capable of murderous rage. Norton sells Gere, and Gere sells us that the snake oil salesman within can fail to recognize when he’s being sold, well, snake oil.
The downstream cast is marvelous as well. Primal Fear is nothing if not a stacked deck of some of the finest actors of their era. Laura Linney plays a hard-nosed prosecutor who goes after Gere and Norton while carrying the emotional weight of sparring with her ex-husband in the courtroom. Is it a bit much that Linney and Gere’s characters were formerly betrothed? Sure it is, but again, it’s how it is about it. Linney’s disgust towards Gere can’t hide an abiding affection for her husband turned opponent. While Linney has some terrific lines in the film, you can see in her ever-present performance that she is making something far more complex out of her role than was likely on the page.
Then in smaller parts you have Alfre Woodard as the judge overseeing the case, Frances McDormand as a psychologist testifying on the behalf of the defense, Maura Tierney and Andre Braugher as Gere’s legal team, and John Mahoney as a state’s attorney who may well have something to hide as he tries to influence the outcome of the case from the sidelines. As I said, the deck is stacked.
But it is that delicate dance between Gere and Norton that is the heart of the film. Gere’s Martin Vail is a man with too much confidence. If he believes it, it must be true. And what he believes is the stammering Stampler truly has a violent man named Roy residing within, just waiting to come out when Stampler is under duress. Ever the opportunist, Vail sets up Stampler on the stand so that when Linney’s prosecutor pushes just the right buttons, Stampler will transform into Roy, the killer inside.
In the hands of other actors (and more than a few directors), the moment that Aaron Stampler crosses over and turns into Roy could have played laughably, but all on board are so committed to this truly insane turn of events, that the viewer is completely sold in the moment. After the courtroom erupts into a melee that finds Stampler’s hands around an attorney’s neck, there’s a sly bit of humor that takes place inside the judge’s chambers. Linney starts to light a cigarette, and Woodard’s judge stops her because there’s no smoking in the courthouse. She then turns and pours a half glass of liquor for Gere, Linney, and herself to steady all of their nerves. Linney accepts, but when Gere passes on the hard stuff, Woodard pours his glass into her own, because on a day like this, she could use a double.
The result of Stampler’s psychological break gives Martin Vail the result that he was looking for—freedom for his client. But at what cost? We soon find out that the price Martin Vail pays for believing in someone for the first time in what likely has been an age, is a terribly steep one.
During the film’s final sequence, we see Vail meet his client in the courthouse holding cell. Gere shows us the pride, satisfaction, and empathy he feels for his terribly troubled client. One might think this to be a breakthrough moment for Martin Vail’s humanity. You can see it in Gere’s eyes that he is rejoicing in, for once, doing the right thing for someone other than himself. And just as one might think a satisfying, if unsurprising, conclusion to the film has been reached, Edward Norton’s Stampler turns the screw and digs it into Vail’s side.
As we watch the moment come over Gere’s attorney, we see a man in total shock. Vail would run from Stampler if he could, but his legs can barely move him forward. Vail does manage to escape Stampler’s company, but only physically. Vail attempts to move with purpose, but we can see on Gere’s face that he is both numb and nearly dizzy with the understanding that he, the one who dupes, has been duped by an alarmingly sophisticated sociopath.
Gere plays Martin Vail as a man who sees every angle, or so it seems. Yet when we see Vail stop in the middle of the street as he leaves the courthouse grounds, he is clearly a man who never saw the train coming until it rolled over him.
Primal Fear should have, at best, worked about as well as a seedy ‘80s movie starring James Woods about an unscrupulous character who gets their comeuppance just as they are on the precipice of their greatest achievement. Yet somehow, thanks to superior acting and direction, Primal Fear turns into something more than the sum of its pulpy parts. It is a warning sign to all those that operate in the muck and the mire that you can never get truly clean, no matter how hard you try.
It’s a hell of a thing to take material such as this and turn it into a powerfully ambiguous take on a man finding his moral code and discovering that it brings him no benefit. Because in its final moment, as the film zeroes in on Gere’s countenance, we see it in this very fine (and too often undervalued) actor’s eyes, that his character is lost, and he may never be found.
And it hits you like a hammer.