An incredible plot twist and superb acting from a strong cast make Primal Fear worth watching. The 1996 movie based on William Diehl’s novel faithfully portrays that book’s suspense and superb ending. The acting includes a Golden Globe award winning performance from Edward Norton, who was also nominated for an Academy Award in his role as Aaron Stampler.
Norton, Gere Lead Superb Cast
Led by Norton’s award-winning performance (he would finally win his Oscar two years later for American History X), the cast continually delivers in this legal thriller.
Richard Gere is intense and complex in the lead role. Gere has made some dogs in his day, but in Primal Fear, he is as solid a lead as Michael Douglas was a decade earlier. Two strong women play characters who create conflict with Gere. Laura Linney, in her first big role, is an ex-flame and prosecutor opposing him while Frances McDormand is a nurturing, Earth-mother-type psychologist who doesn’t quite give Gere everything he needs to defend Stampler.
Primal Fear rises and falls on Edward Norton’s portrayal of Aaron Stampler, a young man accused of killing a Catholic leader in Chicago. The Stampler role was initially offered to Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher), a hot commodity in 1996, who likely could never have matched Norton’s intensity. The awards and accolades are well deserved because Norton’s work in Primal Fear matches anything he has ever done including American History X and the equally intense Fight Club.
Rounding out the cast is Frasier’s John Mahoney, who does a good job as the State’s Attorney. Fellow TV cop Joe Spano (from Hill Street Blues, which was produced by Primal Fear’s director Greb Hoblit) is also present as are ER’s Maura Tierney and veteran Alfre Woodard. Woodard’s petite build doesn’t stop her tough judge character from towering over the attorneys in another flare of Primal Fear’s white-hot intensity.
What Makes Primal Fear Special
Besides the phenomenal ending, which ranks with Bruce Willis’ The Sixth Sense, the plot is believable and shocking without being overtly sexual. There are lots of bloody pictures, though, and a well-edited murder scene that lets the viewer’s mind fill in more horrifying details than could ever be presented to the eyes. This tactic, dating back to Hitchcok and earlier engages the viewer more thoroughly than any slasher or horror film.
The editing is also top-notch, especially in a scene when seemingly all of Chicago turns to their televisions to watch live feeds of the police chasing Aaron.
Where Primal Fear Sometimes Misses
Director Hoblit predictably used too much sexual and professional tension between Gere and Linney.
That’s it – just one minor detail that you need to get past to make Primal Fear an enjoyable and thrilling viewing experience. Picture any two opposing celebrity attorneys being former lovers and suspend disbelief.
The Bottom Line, Popcorn Kernels and All
Mostly legal thriller with more than a hint of mystery and suspense, Primal Fear offers something for everyone. Keep young ones away from the action and intense subject.
Five Things To Remember About Primal Fear
1. Richard Gere gives one of his best performances ever…
2. …but is overshadowed by Edward Norton’s Academy Award-nominated performance.
3. Favorite TV actors (Joe Spano, Maura Tierney and John Mahoney) show up in key roles.
4. Primal Fear is based on a William Diehl novel.
5. The story is riveting, and the ending incredible.