Primal Fear (1996)

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

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Primal Fear is a fun courtroom drama with a few twists and turns, notably in the final ten minutes, like those of Billy Wilder’s The Witness for the Prosecution.  The nature of the story is dead serious, including possible mental illness and the murder of a priest caught up in real estate corruption and the sodomy of three youths, and yet it’s all wrapped up in a familiar package.  We get the snarky, handsome and likable hero, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) as well as his opposing prosecutor and unsubtle love interest Janet Venable (Laura Linney).  Then there’s the kid on trial, Aaron (Edward Norton in his first role), a shy kid with a stutter who we, like Martin, think must surely be innocent (otherwise what’s the point of the movie?).  And lastly there are a handful of memorable side characters (played by Maura Tierney, Andre Braugher and that one guy).

Aaron Stampler is caught running from the crime scene, where a respected Archbishop was brutally gutted with a knife.  It’s horrific, and the apparent intent of the crime doesn’t align with Aaron’s perceived cowardice.  He’s a quiet kid who has no memory of the attack, and we’re inclined to believe in his innocence despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

At this point the film could go two directions, and each one says a lot about what the film has in mind to say.  Martin, as a defense attorney who represents some of the most damned criminals in Chicago, is both respected and loathed.  He insists on everyone’s right to a fair trial, and when he hears about this murder on tv, he jumps immediately in to defend Aaron, free of f*ckin’ charge.  So that’s a big character moment right there.  We know that Martin intends to represent a client with the odds stacked against him.  Any reasonable person would believe in Aaron’s guilt, so Martin jumping in reaffirms that he is a complex figure, one devoted to the law.

And there is certainly a story there, about a guy devoted to doing right by his client, even though he’s likely a murderer.  This would be a more nuanced story, with the character’s core principles possibly contrasting with our own.  

Instead Martin quickly finds reason to believe in Aaron’s innocence, and only later do we find out the Archbishop was a bad dude.  So at that point in the story we’re rooting for Martin because he’s right.  He has the moral superiority, and now the antagonist, the prosecution team, is clear and wrong.  This is what the film pursues, and it’s fun because the film is well-made, but it’s a sort of betrayal of the serious storyline on which the film is based.

Aaron, we learn, was abused as a child, suffers from amnesia, ended up homeless, was brought in by the Archbishop, was abused by the Archbishop and is now possibly being framed for the Archbishop’s murder.  Because of our sense of right and wrong, we are quick to overlook the heinous crime, and the film’s insistence that we follow the clear hero of the story turns everything into a black and white presentation of right and wrong.  This transforms a possible character study into a plot-driven movie, but as a courtroom drama I suppose that was always the case.  Still, something like HBO’s miniseries The Night Of handled a suspect’s possible guilt with much more subtlety, allowing us to see him in several different ways (though it still overlooked the devastating crime which landed him on trial).  

So again, Primal Fear is fun.  It’s a puzzle of a movie, letting us play the game along with the defense.  Martin’s dilemma is that he bases his defense on the possibility of their being a third party in the room at the time of the murder.  He argues that Aaron was present but that he wasn’t the killer.  When the trial begins he still has no evidence of a third killer, so the investigation runs parallel to his defense.  Around halfway into the film Martin uncovers evidence that Aaron might have a mental illness which would enable him to get him off based on a plea of insanity.  Because the trial has already begun, it is too late for Martin to change his defense.

This really is kind of fascinating, if only because it shows the limits of the law (not that movies haven’t focused on such limits before, it’s how you get the Dirty Harry’s of the movie world).  We wonder why there can’t be more common sense in the courtroom, and why Martin must adhere to an argument that he has watched grow based on the evidence.  Why must we stick to one talking point when there is room for others?

Well, I don’t know, but the courtroom is built on a sense of law and order with the emphasis here on order.  Primal Fear, then, is a film about lack of order and the attempt to wrap everything up neatly.  In a world of chaos, I suppose, all you can hold onto is even the slightest perceived sense of order, even when it seems highly implausible.  

To speak more of the movie would be to spoil it, though if you have seen Witness for the Prosecution then you might have an idea of what happens by the end.  Primal Fear is a good hang, a fun game-ification of a disturbing crime.  Such game-ification might be worth complaining about, but it’s an ingrained part of the courtroom drama where natural human emotions are stripped away within the process of determining someone’s innocence.  As Martin says in the movie’s first scene, a courtroom isn’t about finding out the truth, it’s about winning.  Every client, every suspect, has the right to try and win.  

In Primal Fear Martin will find reason to adhere less strictly to such a worldview.  This courtroom drama not only makes a process out of a murder but so too does it put under a microscope Martin’s own process.  This faltering of faith is similar to the theme of the next movie I’ll be writing about, Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961).

Up Next: Through a Glass Darkly (1966), Insomnia (2002), Burden of Dreams (1982)

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