May 17, 2015
Primal Fear (1996)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Stars: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney

What it's about. A murder case courtroom drama set in Chicago and starring Richard Gere as a smug power attorney defending indigent Aaron (Edward Norton). The prosecutor is chainsmoking and nervous but attractive Laura Linney. Gere and Linney used to be co-workers and lovers and he wants to resume their relationship, but she does not.

All evidence points to Aaron as the murderer, but he claims innocence. He is a former altar boy for the victim, a highly esteemed Catholic archbishop (Stanley Anderson). Aaron, meek and stammering, was caught covered in the archbishop's blood, but states he found the body, then blacked out.

Gere brings in psychiatrist Frances McDormand. Both learn that that Aaron has a split personality, whose alter ego Roy is hostile and violent. Roy butchered the archbishop because he was directing home porno movies starring Roy, another altar boy, and Aaron's would-be fiancée Azalea Davila.

Because it is a movie, Gere can't plead that Aaron is a nut job. His plan is to have Roy emerge when Aaron is on the stand, which, because it is a movie, will prove that Aaron is innocent because Roy is guilty instead. This plan somehow works, but because it is a movie, Aaron later confesses to Gere that he has been Roy all along, and the stuttering wimp was just a front to escape punishment for his murders.

How others will see it. Primal Fear is best known today for making a moviestar out of previously unknown Edward Norton. For his hammy performance, he received Best Supporting Actor nominations from the Oscars, BAFTA, and Golden Globes, and promptly went on to make several other successful films, most famously Fight Club and American History X, although we still like The People vs. Larry Flynt the best.

Apart from Norton, Primal Fear received mixed reviews but made decent money at the box office. Today at, the movie has a respectable 115K user votes and a high user rating of 7.7. Viewers under age 18 like it best (8.3), and the ratings gradually decline with advancing age, although those over 45 still grade it 7.5. Women judge it slightly higher than do men, perhaps due to the appeal of Gere and Norton.

How I felt about it. This movie is bogus, through and through. The most obvious (but by no means the only) problem is with Norton's character.

Working our way backwards, there is no advantage for Aaron to admit to Gere that he has no split personality, and the stuttering wimp was a calculated fabrication. He has nothing to gain from this, and much to lose. Instead, especially being so clever, he would lie to Gere that he had learned of his attack on Linney from what a guard had told him.

An even greater difficulty is, if Roy was really Aaron all along, when did Roy invent Aaron? As soon as he came to Chicago, as if he had planned to murder the archbishop all along? If so, why participate in the archbishop's home movies for years? Why kill Linda? Isn't she also a victim, as well? Why murder the archbishop in his office, where Aaron is likely to get caught, when he could presumably lure the archbishop into the countryside, and murder him there? (This must have been how Linda was killed, since no body was found.) Why would the archbishop erase the tapes, since their purpose was to be played for his sexual gratification?

Beyond the unbelievable Aaron/Roy character, the courtroom proceedings are ridiculous. Gere whispers to Aaron during his testimony. No judge or prosecutor would allow this: it's blatant coaching. Why would Linney badger Aaron on the stand, as if she is trying to get Roy to emerge? Why would a jury conclude such a dangerously violent man is innocent? Would you want that man on the streets?

Although priests have been guilty of molestation, such incidents are one-on-one instead of group encounters where the archbishop serves as film director. Such a scenario is impossible to believe.

Why does Gere want to resume a relationship with a humorless chain smoker who dislikes him? Is his libido that strong? Why imply that Frasier's dad (John Mahoney) is the real murderer, only to make this subplot a dead end? The local gangster character, seen often at the beginning of the movie, equally serves no purpose. A third subplot, which has million-dollar lawyer Gere involved in the false imprisonment of a potentially violent youth witness, is perhaps most preposterous of all.

The trial judge (Alfre Woodard) acts so stern, especially toward Gere, yet she allows both lawyers to give such long sensational speeches when a witness is on the stand. And why would Gere want to take the pro bono case? For the publicity of losing it? He has a staff to pay.