An arch bishop is murdered and an altar boy is accused of the murder. It is up to hot-shot attorney Martin Vail to prove there was someone else in the room at the time of the murder to save his client’s life.

The Lowdown

It amazes me while watching this film how many people went on to be successful actors today. It is old news that this is the movie that gave Edward Norton his big break and your memory should be commended because his performance is masterful. He has gone on to have an incredibly critically acclaimed career, but this may still be his best moment. However, once you get past Richard Gere, who was extremely generous in sharing his screen time with a youngster who would upstage him at every turn, you have a virtual who’s who of acting greats.

Laura Linney, whose biggest role to date was the cult hit Congo, shined as the District Attorney assigned to prosecute Norton’s accused killer. Another familiar face is John Mahoney, known best as the dad on TV’s Frasier, but also a veteran actor in Coen brother films. Speaking of the Coen brothers, Joel’s wife, and Academy Award winner, Francis McDormand stars in one of the film’s memorable moments. Blink and you miss him Terry O’Quinn (Locke from TV’s Lost) makes an appearance. Steven Bauer (Scarface) and Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Streets) also provide familiar faces. This movie is an actor’s dream and there are a lot of great actors on display in the movie.

Primal Fear is the adaptation of the novel by William Diehl, and part of a series of books concerning attorney Martin Vail. Vail is a vain attorney who has achieved an almost cult status after winning a multi-million dollar brutality judgment against the city, county and state police. Along the way he has made numerous enemies and they finally believe they have found a way to get back at him. An arch bishop is brutally murdered, hacked to pieces, and the number one suspect is Aaron, an altar boy who was sexually abused by the holy man. Vail is brought aboard as the defense to the altar boy. The biggest selling point of the movie is that Aaron is also Roy and it may not have been Aaron that killed the man, but his split personality.

When Vail is interrogating Aaron at the jail and Aaron suddenly and unexpectedly turns into Roy, it is a master class of acting by both Edward Norton and Richard Gere. It was clear at that point in time, Gere was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, but that scene showcased a young actor that would soon become a master. Edward Norton completely killed that scene and the movie turned on its ear into more than just another boring police procedural or courtroom drama. This movie was a lot more than anything either of those subgenres had ever seen.

The director was a newcomer to the theatrical scene at the time and it shows. Many of the scenes were lit completely wrong and, while that might fall at the feet of the cinematographer Michael Chapman, I have to post the blame at the hands of Gregory Hoblit. TV and film are two completely different mediums and I can’t bitch too much about the Oscar nominated cinematographer of Raging Bull, especially not when the director is the man who gave us Untraceable.

I believe the success of this movie is not due to the director but instead falls at the feet of the fantastic actors and the script, expertly penned by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman. The twists and turns from the novel were awe-inspired but the way they were constructed in the script presents us with a wonderful whodunit. Some people believe that adapting a screenplay is easier than creating an original work. Those people are wrong. There are so many places to stumble when working off another writer’s work and both screenwriters avoided most of those pratfalls expertly.

None of that would matter if not for the compatibility of the leads. Richard Gere and Edward Norton played off each other perfectly. Norton could have played this role out with just about anyone but another thespian might not have given the support a young actor like Norton needed at the time. When Aaron transformed into Roy, Norton was absolutely frightening but Gere’s reaction was just as superb. Richard Gere has not been a movie even remotely as great as this one since. Norton would receive an Oscar nomination for this film and then a second one for American History X two years later. Norton has played a number of complex characters in his career, but their genesis all harkens back to Aaron/Roy, a split personality that stands even taller than the one he would portray in Fight Club.

Primal Fear remains a solid movie with some of the best performances I have seen over the last twenty years. It deserves all the praise it has received.

The Package

The first thing to point out is the movie is enveloped in a sealed evidence bag. It is pretty cool but just a worthless addition.

Commentary Track – The track is with Director Gergory Hoblit, Writer Ann Biderman, Producer Gary Lucchesi, Executive Producer Hawk Koch, and Casting Director Deborah Aquila. There are small moments where the commentators stop talking and watch the movie but overall it is a good track. It starts off poorly where the commentators stumble about what to say but soon they become more comfortable. It is also clear the participants have fuzzy memories of certain moments but the five of them seem to pull all the stories together and it is a nice addition to the DVD.

Primal Fear: The Final Verdict (18:00) – This was almost a great feature because it talks to just about everyone including Edward Norton. However, a huge loss is that of Richard Gere. It’s cool to hear from Norton but would have been perfect with Gere.

Primal Fear: Star Witness (17:57) – Edward Norton’s portrayal of Aaron/Roy is the focus of this feature. The talk starts with how Norton almost didn’t get the chance to break out here as a number of actors got to audition including Leonardo DiCaprio. Once again we hear from most of the people involved except Richard Gere.

Psychology of Guilt (13:36) – The actual process of pleading insanity in criminal cases is discussed here with psychologists and lawyers. It is clearly an educational video. The question of multiple personality disorder is discussed with one man believing it exists and another believing it is actually a problem. The Hillside Strangler case is brought up as a case of multiple personality disorder.