If the 1990’s will be remembered for anything, it will be for the numerous and memorable plot twists and shock conclusions that dominated cinema at that time. Primal Fear is a case in point.
Skilfully directed by multi- Emmy award winner Gregory Hoblit and exceptionally written by Ann Biderman and Steven Shagan (based on the novel by William Diehl), Primal Fear features a number of smartly executed twists and turns including one stunner which had me reeling at its conclusion.
The movie stars Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a former prosecutor turned big time, glory hound defence attorney. When the Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese is brutally murdered, Vail jumps on the case (knowing it will generate a media storm) offering his services free of charge to the case’s lone murder suspect, a fragile, 19 year old alter boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton).
With Stampler maintaining his innocence, Vail digs deeper, finding sexual abuse with the Chicago Archdiocese and comes across a bungled multi-million dollar real estate deal which had its investors fuming at the Archbishop, who pulled the plug on the deal since the land in questioned belonged to the Catholic Church.
Going up against Vail is his old flame and former colleague Janet Venable (Laura Linney) who has been given strict orders to win at any cost and to insure a sentence of death. Things get worse for Vail when his client begins to exhibit a multiple personality who confesses to the crime.
Primal Fear takes on a number of issues: The corruption of the law, mental illness, real estate development and sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. But above all, this movie addresses the illusion of truth and the deception of innocence.
The acting on show is very good. Richard Gere is solid as always, with the type of cocky posturing his character inhabits seeming to come very natural to him. Laura Linney gives a ballsy performance, as does John Mahoney who is spectacularly nasty as the power hungry high official.
Yet it is Edward Norton who steals the show, putting on an electric exhibit of acting versatility, easily and eerily transforming himself from vulnerable child to a tough talking, rage induced murderer who puts fear into anyone who crosses his path. It is quite possibly the best debut performance ever seen, and the main reason – but not the only reason - to watch this movie.