Film Review: Primal Fear (1996)


Primal Fear is a paperback crime novel on the screen, a solid cast of scandalous characters, and one supposedly psychotic boy who hits center-stage: Aaron, played with searing talent by Edward Norton, is found running on train-tracks with blood smeared on his hands, chest, and face. A priest has been killed, and Aaron is an alter boy. This sets the premise for the fame-hungry Lawyer, Martin Vail, played by Richard Gere, and his near futile attempt to prove the boy not guilty; similar to Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.

The evidence for the boy comes up in spurts, partly revealed by Martin Vail’s conversations with him in the jail cell. Aaron has some odd outbursts in the midst of a psychiatrist, played by Frances McDormand, trying to smoothly pry inside him, and it is recorded and re-played to arrive at the conclusion that he has anger problems, which would not be good for the case, or has multiple-personality disorder. This decides whether or not Aaron will go to jail, to a psychiatric unit, or proven to not be guilty of the crime at all: For the lawyer, psychiatric unit would be second best, proven guilty the best, though this case seems to change something inside Lawyer Martin Vail. Before, he was a celebrity of the law, and now he seems to genuinely want to discover the truth behind Aaron. He finally becomes what a lawyer should be.

The relationship between Janet (Laura Linney), and Martin begs the question of whether or not it is right for lawyers to connect, personal history or whatever, in discussion of the case at hand. I feel it creates an unfair complication, the personal interlacing of values and sensitivities, that makes one of the sides being defended not balanced. Why do we not allow jury members to have relationships with the subject? Blackmail and other ulterior motives, of course.  The dialogue has some memorability to it, also, with the Lawyer’s longevity providing inexcusable pouts of familiarity; he thinks he knows the game, yet who is really playing it?

The film is well-paced and confident in its staging of the court, featuring bravo performances from Gere, Linney, and particularly on Edward Norton’s end as Aaron. Without the great performances, it would seem rather TV procedural, but yet it is also a testament to the power of a well-executed pot-boiler, even if  its psychological drama is one dimensional.

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