Once you reach the big pivot point in Primal Fear's design, you'll see exactly how Edward Norton, a then no-named actor, quickly popped onto every short list in Hollywood based off of one performance. But director Gregory Hoblit knows exactly what he's got and, like all good things, he makes you wait for it.
Based off of William Diehl's mystery novel, Primal Fear starts off at a stuffy cocktail party with all the bigwig politicians and lawyers in town supporting a church fundraiser. Among those socialites are narcissistic lawyer Martin Veil (Richard Gere), a bloodhound of an attorney more centered on getting his face on the cover of a magazine than maintaining a solid reputation, and his feisty ex-partner Janet (Laura Linney), a powerhouse in the law sector in her own right and also an ex-lover of Martin's. Instead of networking, the pair are more preoccupied with dancing in verbal circles around each other at the bar -- which shows the level of chemistry that exists between them.
Soon they'd be clawing at each other in court over a Catholic archbishop's murder, a vicious act that has been gaining national attention for its grotesque nature and snappily-named "Butcher Boy" suspect. Martin knows that taking his case would bolster his already-lauded persona, which is why he elects to represent church-pupil Aaron (Norton) pro-bono. He soon realizes that he has bitten off way more than he could chew with the boy, all of which would challenge the latent idealistic whims that drew him to the case in the first place.
Most courtroom character studies play out like long-winded chess matches, involving the admiration we build for the two players -- the prosecution and the defense -- as they strategically arrange a slew of intricate pieces in a way that'll corner the other into surrender. Richard Gere, the only star in the picture at the time, and Laura Linney share a tangible semi-romantic chemistry that taps into this chess-minded dynamic, mincing words between two very strong-willed characters in enticing fashion. Gere's performance is expectedly well-acted, since he takes well to the self-absorbed typecast (see Pretty Woman and Officer and a Gentlemen); Linney, a second relatively little-known name at the time, delivers a deft, fiery performance as the charismatic Janet, one that easily compliments Martin's vanity.
However, Primal Fear shares more in common with a grueling game of football, as strange as that might sound, than a meticulous chess match. Though there's strategy and scheming amid Martin and Janet's cutthroat antics, it all focuses on the two sides pushing and grabbing at one all-important piece of the puzzle. Sure, all of their posturing and pressure-placing interviews with political/social VIPs mean something to the case, but every shroud of hard evidence lies in the mind of one individual.
This missing piece of the puzzle is a glum, stuttering defendant, an overgrown choir boy named Aaron, brought to life by Edward Norton. There's an honest complacency that he lets slip through Aaron's eyes, a level of purity that makes it hard not to believe what he's telling Martin -- even though the victim's blood was found everywhere on his clothing when he was chased down. In the sterile, claustrophobic jail cell, Norton gives off understated cues to indicate the character's drained physical and emotional nature. Then, out of nowhere, the American History X actor shows where his acting ferocity comes from, exploding into a dramatic whirlwind that earned him an Oscar nomination. With Frances McDormand picking his brain as a psychological analyst, his complexity begins to rapidly overtake the entire scope of the picture. Though Gregory Hoblit's film stands on its own legs as a well-constructed-yet-standard courtroom procedural by twisting together church and state corruption, Norton steals the show at around the halfway mark and transforms it into a maddening affair.
His unsettling aura leaves the rest of Primal Fear as a breathless and ensnaring procession through a dizzying array of twists and turns. Everything regarding the case itself plays out as a standard procedural drama that doesn't do anything all that special, but the warring lawyers and the gripping evolution of evidence surrounding Aaron take Primal Fear to a different level. It has its clichéd moments, gasp-worthy ones and even some seeming empty without a dramatic "duh-dun-dun" playing in the background, yet they're justified by the dynamic entities at war. In regards to courtroom dramas, however, the labyrinthine emotional context in To Kill a Mockingbird and the rambling rhetoric in A Few Good Men overshadow Hoblit's architecture.
But Primal Fear holds its own in that respect. With buzzing intensity in the air, it quickly transforms into a sharp dramatic battle between Gere and Linney as they persistently upstage one another. This dynamic will stick for the rest of the trial, all the while repeatedly shining the spotlight on Linney's ability to overpower her glamorous co-star with her now-famous aggressive fervor. It's an actor's showcase with the courtroom as their stage, one that takes a rather standard story and boosts it up with two energetic, attention-grabbing performances -- and one sly shot from Norton that steals all their thunder. Primal Fear won't sway those who typically aren't gripped by law-based modus operandi; yet, Gregory Hoblit's capacity to build effective personalities within a stale, overdone atmosphere is a notable accomplishment, whether you dig the film's wicked little twist or not.
Video and Audio:
There are moments when Primal Fear's 1080p AVC encode pops with rich detail and strong dimensionality, while there are others where it looks rather humdrum and somewhat noisy. The 1.78:1 image (expanded a bit from its 1.85:1 original ratio) has that mid-to-late '90s gloss about it, taking it right along that line between modern-style shine and a more pedestrian, flat appearance. Flesh tones and texture are competent throughout, showing off the disc's capacity to render strong details where it counts. It even handles minute details, like a zipper on a cop's coat and the myriad of wood grains in the architecture, with surprising detail, as well as keeping strong preservation of any lighting effects used on set.
But many backdrops, walls, and more stable-colored elements in the image push passed film grain and move into digital noise, all creating some rather fuzzy environment renderings (especially in the pool table/bar scene) and a noticeable haze about the image. Contrast also has a few issues here and there, making shadows seem a little grayer than they probably should and causing grass to come off a little on the blatantly green side. Primal Fear still looks fine -- and seemingly distortion/enhancement free -- with only a few hints of noticeable print damage, all of which build it into a moderate, no-frills high-definition image.
For the audio treatment, we've got a durable Dolby TrueHD track that delivers exactly where it needs to -- in verbal clarity. Musical accompaniment rings true just fine and the scant sound effects that include Gere's subtly muted thud against a brick wall and the slamming of Veil's office door are all preserved well. Most of the action stays to the front of the soundstage, only passing to the back in the rare occasion where an ambient effect might add just a boost to the atmosphere or during music-heavy scenes. However, the depth of Norton's lower-pitched vocal moments and the highpoints of Linney's vocal strength all stay audible and clean, keeping crisp all the most important audio elements in Primal Fear. French, and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also available, as are subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese options.
Cast and Crew Commentary:
As with all massive cast/crew commentaries of five or more, there's lot of laid back discussion and reminiscing -- most of it which is emphasized in more direct and digestible fashion in the latter featurettes. Director Hoblit, writer Biderman, producers Lucchesi and Koch, and casting director Aquila reminisce about Norton's participation, refer to Gere as a race horse, discuss what they do and don't remember, and point out some of the supporting cast that might not be easily obvious to the eye. It's not terribly scene-specific, though the discussion around Norton's flee from the police is very good and spot-on, but it's still a decent track with plenty of insightful anecdotes and tidbits about the film.
Primal Fear: The Final Verdict (17:59, HD MPEG-2):
Operating as the most general assembly featurette of the lot, "The Final Verdict" takes interview time with the actors (Linney, Norton) and the onslaught of producers and filmmakers that participated with its inception and discusses nearly every element of the picture. They touch on Norton's freshman role just a bit, but most of that is left for the "Star Witness" feature. Most of the discussion here involves adapting the film from its source, making a decision on Laura Linney as the role opposite of Gere, using Gere and Linney in the secondary love plot line, as well as the studio's struggle with the low number of names in the key roles.
Primal Fear: Star Witness (17:56, HD MPEG-2):
This feature concentrates on the role of Aaron, as well as the entire process leading up to Norton's casting. Leonardo DiCaprio's name gets tossed around, of course, since he was the front-runner for the role for a long time. It talks about the "layers" of Aaron's personality, as well as how he was written. But then Norton gets soaked into discussing his starry-eyed tale of Hollywood discovery, all in a very unpretentious and thankful way.
Psychology of Guilt (13:35, HD MPEG-2):
Taking some time with forensic psychologists and judges, this piece concentrates on the nature of using the insanity plea during court cases. It takes both sides, explaining its nature as it's used in the courts as well as a pragmatic point-of-view that believes it (spoiler: as well as multiple personality disorder) to be a hoax. The two sides start to blur closer and closer together, placing emphasis on the cinematic ways that it molds to Primal Fear and its central character. There's some especially interesting talk of Ronald Regan's attempted assassin, John Hinckley Jr., and how it helped to change the NGI (Not Guilty by means of Insanity) plea, as well as some interesting archival footage of the Hillside Strangler(s) and his mental transformation.
Also available is a very active, relatively spoiler-free Theatrical Trailer.
Though Primal Fear takes cues from previous law-based dramas, the trio of performances from Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and especially Edward Norton lift it above these conventional typecasts. Featuring a somewhat intriguing, if implausible, romance narrative between the defendant and prosecutor and a strong line of twists and turns outside of the courtroom, it's one of the better additions into the genre and a strong mystery in its own right. Paramount's Blu-ray doesn't look too shabby and sounds quite clear, but the cluster of special features are what keep the package afloat with a series of compelling earmarks -- notably the material about the insanity plea. For the supplements and the marginally strong Blu-ray presentation of an above-average courtroom picture, Primal Fear comes with a lukewarm Recommendation.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site