Primal Fear

1996, R, 131 min. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances Mcdormand, Edward Norton, Stanley Anderson.

REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., April 5, 1996

When a beloved Chicago archbishop is brutally murdered, celebrated criminal defense lawyer Martin Vail (Gere) pounces on the case. His client is Aaron Stampler (Norton), a 19-year-old runaway-turned-altar boy who was found fleeing the scene, covered in the archbishop's blood. Vail's adversary in court? Assistant State's Attorney Janet Venable (Linney), once Vail's “mentee” and his former lover. Based on the New York Times bestseller by novelist William Diehl, Primal Fear marks the first feature film from Gregory Hoblit, the accomplished television producer and director of NYPD Blue. With Primal Fear, Hoblit blends the grittiness of NYPD Blue with a fairly taut thriller that sustains its tension until the film's compelling final scenes. While Gere does his share of scenery-chewing throughout the film, stage actor Norton makes his screen debut with an incredible performance as the alleged murderer Aaron. His multifaceted role demands equal amounts of stammering vulnerability and unchecked rage, which Norton pulls off splendidly. As Vail's ex-lover and the prosecuting attorney, Linney brings an edgy wit to the role of Janet Venable. The film's finale caves in disappointingly with respect to her character, but Diehl's story provides other smart, savvy women in the characters of Dr. Molly Arrington (McDormand) and Judge Miriam Shoat (Woodard). Although Primal Fear dips dangerously into clichéd dialogue primarily via Gere's character, the film presents an interesting behind-the-scenes examination of a highly-charged murder trial and its equally high-profile defense attorney. The general theatrics of the film often pale in comparison to those in the courtroom. The film could do more with this exploration; one of Primal Fear's key scenes concerning legal ethics remains undeveloped, a strange twist considering the narrative's focus on these issues throughout the first half of the film. However, Norton's performance and the well-paced tension preceding the movie's climactic sequence provide an entertaining if slightly predictable thriller. And, with its focus on the Catholic Church and ethics in general, Primal Fear makes an interesting (if slightly twisted) viewing choice for the Easter weekend.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Gregory Hoblit Films
Untraceable
This tepid, borderline-offensive cyber-serial-killer thriller rehashes both better and worse examples of the current, vapid clamor for so-called "torture porn."

Marc Savlov, Jan. 25, 2008

Fracture
This legal thriller pits two brilliant actors against each other in a sustained battle of wills that has enough sizzle to keep us rapt even when the storyline sags.

Marjorie Baumgarten, April 20, 2007

More by Alison Macor
'The Last Supper'
'The Last Supper'
'Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas': an excerpt

Feb. 26, 2010

The First Wives Club

Sept. 20, 1996

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Primal Fear, Gregory Hoblit, Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances Mcdormand, Edward Norton, Stanley Anderson

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle