Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

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Primal Fear has a better legacy than it probably should. What’s ultimately a fairly forgettable movie has inadvertently earned a lot more real estate in viewer’s memories because it happened to be Edward Norton’s first movie, and it contains one of the nineties more notorious “gotcha” endings. So, if nothing else, the newly released Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition will make you nostalgic for a simpler time in cinema, when twist endings could actually catch you by surprise.

Upon looking back, what’s most striking about Primal Fear is the level of talent in the cast. Leaving the obvious stars aside, it would seem the casting director managed to get a formidable actor to fill nearly every speaking role. Andre Braugher, Maura Tierney, Terry O’Quinn, and Alfre Woodard are but a few of the well-respected actors toiling in roles not entirely deserving of their talents. The majority of the heavy lifting is left in the generally capable hands of Norton, Laura Linney, and Richard Gere.

Gere plays Martin Vail, a high profile defense attorney who decides to defend Aaron Stampler, a stuttering, sweet-natured altar boy accused of murdering a much-beloved Archbishop. That’s about as far as a plot synopsis can go without giving away more than the filmmakers probably want you to know going in, even if it is a little silly to be concerned about spoiler alerts thirteen years after the movie’s release. Mixed in with this basic-seeming story are a series of vaguely moralistic swiping glances at shady inner-city developers, overly ambitious lawyers, and hypocritical religious figures, with none of these sub-plots receiving enough attention to make any kind of trenchant point.

Despite all of these flaws, Primal Fear is certainly entertaining. The twists come cheap and often, and Norton gives a performance that is fantastically out of proportion with the quality of the material. It’s easy to see why this was his breakout performance, as he effortlessly steals every scene from Gere (who, it’s worth saying, doesn’t put up too much of a fight, largely overplaying his character‘s slickness, and occasionally, visibly bucking when on the verge of taking his performance into more daring territory). In fact, the Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition even goes so far as to include a lovingly assembled mini-documentary detailing the process leading to Edward Norton’s casting. It’s pretty inessential, but it does demonstrate that even the filmmakers are aware that Primal Fear will largely be remembered for giving Norton his start.

Generally, as expected, the special features are devoted to giving the filmmakers a forum to congratulate themselves on a job well done. Not to suggest they are delusional or anything. They probably did receive a great deal of positive attention when the movie was released. The trouble is that Primal Fear grows increasingly preposterous with repeated viewings. It’s primary virtue is the surprise ending, and once you watch the movie aware of where the story is going, the gaping plot holes, contrived tough-guy dialogue, and unorthodox court room proceedings come into clearer focus. It’s probably better to let Primal Fear remain a positive memory, and not let clear-headed movie watching ruin what was probably an enjoyably taut legal thriller a decade ago.

On a side note, if you own a copy of Primal Fear and are wondering if Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition merits an upgrade, I’d advise against it. On the other hand, maybe the idea of a mini-documentary about multiple personality disorder and how it’s utilized in Primal Fear sounds essential to some people.


  1. Jonathan Sanders says:

    The thing that makes Primal Fear such a solid movie is how much it improves on the dismal material provided in the book by the same name. The book turned into three books, during which Ed Norton’s character goes on to do many preposterous things, all because the books gave no closure to the character. The movie forces closure with the twist ending and made sequels impossible and unnecessary. In turn, the film holds up a hell of a lot better than the books … thanks to Norton’s brilliant characterization in his role.

    This movie’s still a guilty pleasure of mine. Cheesy yes. Laura Linney’s most forgettable performance? Yes. Still … give me a couple hours and I’ll watch it again :)

  2. Dan K says:

    Yeah, I hope I didn’t give the impression that this isn’t a movie I would watch on a hungover Saturday morning, because nothing could be further from the truth. There are just certain things about it that keep it from being great, or even conventionally good. For example, (Spoiler alert!!) Edward Norton is revealed at the movie’s end to be some sort of masterfully chameleon-like villain, but the entire success of his plan was based on pure chance and circumstances beyond his control. Unless somehow every single event in the movie occurred within his control, there’s no way he could have planned the way things played out in his favor. I know it’s a legal thriller and that a certain amount of leeway should be given. A movie can both be good and have plot holes, but the better ones hide them more successfully.
    I also had to rein in my strong feelings about something else when writing this review. I’m aware it’s unprofessional to gush over an actress in a review, but this is the comments section and nothing’s off limits, so here goes: What a fucking waste of Maura Tierney. She has maybe three lines in this movie. Perhaps I’ve watched too much Newsradio (I’m kidding, of course. There’s no such thing as “too much Newsradio”), but I’ve had much rather seen Tierney in the Laura Linney role. No disrespect to Linney, who I am also rather fond of, but Tierney should have been a bigger star in the nineties, and this would have been a good opportunity for her. I believe she would have knocked it out.
    Also, Gere’s role should have been played by Andre Braugher. Anyone who’s seen Homicide knows he can do slick intensity, and this is a role he would have killed. And to think he sitting on the set watching Gere fumble it.

  3. Jonathan Sanders says:

    I’d agree with that … and Norton’s character was like that in the book too. Supposedly a master criminal and yet everythign relied on those things out of his control (and a lot of extra issues that the movie, thankfully, left on the cutting room floor). I think by book three he’d become a psychotic revivalist preacher or something to that effect. It was pretty awful.

  4. Jonathan Sanders says:

    But the music was also a plus … Cancao do Mar, by a woman I can’t remember her name, has stuck in my head for YEARS because of this film!

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