Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
March 9, 2009
Primal Fear (1996) is a classic example of a talented actor transcending his role, turning a character into something special and memorable. What was originally marketed as a vehicle for Richard Gere became a breakout role for then-up-and-coming Edward Norton, who would go on to earn an Academy Award nomination for his performance and all kinds of critical praise.
Martin Vail (Gere) is a slick, ultra-confident criminal defense attorney who loves the money and fame that high profile cases bring him. He’s not really concerned with discovering the truth of a given case, only in proving his version of it. He has defended a lot criminal low-lives and profited rather nicely from it, much to the chagrin of the District Attorney. Vail also enjoys flirting and verbally sparring with Janet Venable (Linney), the city’s ace prosecutor and former ex-flame.
Vail takes on his most high-profile case to date when he decides to defend 19-year-old Aaron Stampler (Norton) who is accused of brutally murdering the city’s Catholic archbishop. The shy altar boy has no money and claims that even though he was in the room with the bishop, there was another person there who must have killed the priest. Blinded by his own hubris, Vail looks forward to the challenge and revels in the press coverage he’s getting. He figures that if he can get this kid off, then the sky’s the limit. But it won’t be easy: the evidence is stacked against him and he’s going to be facing off with Venable in court.
It’s easy to see what drew Richard Gere to this film. He’s played this kind of self-assured, cocky character before (American Gigolo and Breathless) and therein lies the problem (if you can call it that). He never truly gets out of his comfort zone because he’s played this kind of character before, but being the consummate professional that he is, Gere delivers a rock solid performance. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast that includes the likes of John Mahoney, Laura Linney, Andre Braugher, Afre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney and others.
It goes without saying that Edward Norton is the real stand-out because he refuses to play it safe and disappears completely into the role of a meek altar boy. He affects a credible southern accent and a nervous stutter that is very disarming and sets up for the famous sucker punch that comes later on in the film. If that was all that was to his character that would be impressive enough but when Stampler’s other personality (named Roy) emerges, things get interesting. Roy turns out to be this aggressive and intimidating persona that comes out when Aaron feels pressured and bullied. The way Norton alternates between the two personas is exciting to watch.
Watching Norton in Primal Fear it is easy to see why this performance launched his career and led to brilliant turns in films like The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), American History X (1998) and Fight Club (1999). Primal Fear is the cinematic equivalent of a really good page turner but is mostly remembered for Norton’s star-turn and little else.
There is an audio commentary by director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila. Hoblit says that there was surprisingly little studio interference and that he hasn’t enjoyed that kind of freedom since. Everyone talks about how the studio didn’t want Laura Linney or Edward Norton cast because they were unknowns at the time and it wanted proven movie stars in those roles. They had seen over 2,000 actors for Norton’s role and the studio wanted Leonardo DiCaprio but he passed. Norton screen-tested and the rest is history.
“Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” is a retrospective featurette that includes key cast and crew members reminiscing about the film. There is some definite overlap from the commentary however Linney and Norton contribute brand new interviews, speaking affectionately about the film.
“Primal Fear: Star Witness” takes a look at the casting of Norton. The filmmakers did an extensive casting search. Norton remembers that a fellow actor told him about the role and he read for it. We are taken through the casting process with Norton offering his impressions.
“Psychology of Guilt” examines the insanity defense and its success rate in court. Experts talk about how rare the multiple personality disorder is and how difficult it is to pull off. They take a look at several high profile examples were it was successful and where it failed.
Finally, there is the original theatrical trailer.