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.