Primal Fear could very well have been another forgettable courtroom potboiler when it was released in 1996--its story had some clever twists but was no great shakes, taking its broad strokes from a (far inferior) pseudo-Grisham novel by William Diehl. But the resulting picture is an excellent example of Roger Ebert's theory that it's not what a film is about, but how it's about it. Director Gregory Hoblit (Frequency) put Richard Gere (in one of his finest performances) at the film's center, surrounded him with a cast of brilliant character actors, and tuned up the screenplay with textures and layers seldom seen in a studio picture.
But Primal Fear's primary claim to fame, thirteen years later, is that it marked the film debut of Edward Norton, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his mesmerizing turn as Aaron Stampler, the altar boy accused of brutally murdering Chicago's archbishop. Gere plays Martin Vail, a hotshot, headline-grabbing defense attorney who works the case pro bono (predicting, correctly, that it'll pay for itself in TV coverage). Laura Linney (in one of her first major roles) is the prosecuting attorney; she's all brains and long blonde hair and cigarettes, and her previous fling with Vail makes for plenty of loaded exchanges.
Sure, some of this is trite. Alfre Woodard is given the thankless task of playing the stern black woman judge; she scowls and says "I'll allow it" a lot before retiring to her chambers for a good stiff drink. As the picture opens, Vail is being interviewed for a magazine profile, which provides an excuse for plenty of pontificating on law and justice and the truth; a little of this goes a long way, and we're not sure why the interviewer keeps coming around after the article's been published (aside from the fact that the screenwriters needed an excuse for more spouted exposition).
But many of the script's problems are forgivable in the hands of such a skilled and talented cast. Richard Gere is an actor who I've often felt doesn't get credit for his talent; he came up perceived as a pretty boy and never has quite shaken that image. But since his career-redefining work in Internal Affairs, he's turned in a steady stream of solid performances (Sommersby, Unfaithful, Chicago, The Hoax). His work here is subtle, tricky, and nuanced; here's a guy who thinks he knows all the angles and is convinced he's the smartest guy in the room, and is stunned to find out that he might be wrong.
Linney is a good match for him, simultaneously smart and unconventionally sexy, while John Mahoney is appropriately smug and smarmy as political power personified. Frances McDormand is, predictably, terrific; Primal Fear hit theatres two months after her iconic turn in Fargo, making this one of her last semi-anonymous performances. Maura Tierny and the great Andre Braugher are memorable in small roles as Vail's support staff.
But the show-stopper is, indeed, Mr. Norton, as the deeply troubled and possibly unstable defendant. In the bonus materials, the filmmakers confirm that Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role, and it is a testament to the mark Norton left on it that we simply cannot imagine another actor, even one as versatile as DiCaprio, taking it on. Norton's is an astonishing, complex, electrifying two-part performance, and the skill with which he navigated the multiple levels of his character announced, correctly, the arrival of a major talent.
Primal Fear originally came to DVD in 1998 in what amounted to a movie-only edition--the only bonus feature was its theatrical trailer. Paramount's new "Hard Evidence Edition" is being release simultaneously on Blu-ray and standard-def DVD, and I'll give them points, first of all, for creative packaging; the disc is housed in a standard plastic case, but that case comes inside a police-style ziplock evidence bag, with labeling and warnings on the bag. It's a clever conceit, making for one of the most inventive packaging jobs of the (admittedly young) year.
A quick comparison to the 1998 disc confirms that Paramount has remastered the film for its simultaneous Blu-ray release; the image is crisper and less noisy than in its previous incarnation. That said, the 1.85:1 anamorphic image is a little on the dull side; much of that is due to the muted color palate utilized by cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). The resulting transfer certainly isn't bad, but it's somewhat flat; there are no digital artifacts of note, aside from fleetingly noticeable DNR in skin tones during a few tight close-ups.
The 5.1 audio track isn't all that exciting, but it is appropriate. The film is heavy on dialogue, all clear in the center channel, but there isn't a lot of action in the film (or, consequently, in the surround speakers). We do have a couple of foot chase and fight scenes, however, which provide ample opportunity for immersive street sound effects and James Newton Howard's punchy score.
French and Spanish audio tracks are included, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The "Hard Evidence Edition" marks a vast improvement in bonus features over the original release, starting with an Audio Commentary by director Gregory Hoblity, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila. It is comfortable and informative, though most of the good nuggets can be found in the featurettes that follow.
The first is "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict" (17:59), a general "making-of" package constructed around interviews with the filmmakers, Norton, and Linney (though, regrettably, not Gere). It's mostly stills and interviews, which causes the piece to drag a bit--we see a snippet of Nortion's audition, which is nice, though Linney talks in great detail about her audition tape, which is not seen. Overall, it's informative but somewhat fluffy.
More interesting is "Primal Fear: Star Witness" (17:56), which focuses specifically on Norton's character and the casting search that brought him to the role. The casting of an unknown in such a key role in a major picture was a big deal, so the package delves into the details of what it took to give Norton what he calls "the break of a lifetime."
The final featurette, "Psychology of Guilt" (13:36), is an academic look at the ins-and-outs of the insanity defense in criminal cases. Judges, psychiatrists, and psychologists weigh in, both on the disorder and its relation to the film. It sounds like something of a dry slog, but it's actually a fairly interesting bit of background, pinpointing real-life cases (such as Hinkley and the Hillside Strangler) that utilized the insanity defense.
The film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:26) and a selection of other Paramount releases round out the special features.
Primal Fear was one of my favorite films of its year, and I must confess that it doesn't hold up as well as I'd hoped; some of the dialogue and storytelling clichés have only grown mustier in the thirteen years since its release. But it remains a skillfully-made thriller, tightly constructed and marvelously performed by a top-notch cast.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.