Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Richard Gere, Laura
Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2009
“I speak. You do not speak. Your job is to just sit there and look innocent.”
“I AM innocent.”
Usually, film critics have to craft their reviews based on first impressions, and first impressions can always change. For my own part, I’ve had my share of pieces for films that I later thought I had underrated. Likewise, I’ve occasionally written ones where I believed a movie to be stellar, only to eventually discover that it didn’t really have the impact I initially thought.
I never wrote a review for Primal Fear, but I had seen it before, and had I done my piece then, it would have been cheerfully enthusiastic, praising it as a top notch legal thriller and mystery with satisfying twists and turns. Now, seeing it again for the first time in many years, I’m a little less generous in my thoughts.
It stars Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a notorious defense attorney who relishes the spotlight and has earned his reputation for successfully defending the indefensible. His philosophy is simple: every defendant deserves a day in court. Whether or not said defendant is actually guilty is completely beside the point and immaterial to his job.
His latest chance is a doozy…a popular Chicago Archbishop is brutally murdered. A nineteen year old kid named Aaron (Norton, in his Oscar-nominated breakout role) is seen fleeing the scene, covered in the priest’s blood. It should be an easy case to prosecute, but Martin decides to become the boy’s lawyer. As mentioned, he doesn’t care whether or not Aaron is guilty.
On the side of the prosecution is Janet (Linney), who naturally once had an affair with Martin back when he was in the business of putting criminals away instead of getting them off. But Martin has his hands full with Aaron, who stutters and seems withdrawn and incapable of hurting a fly. Aaron claims he didn’t do it. And Martin starts to make the mistake he considers fatal in his profession…he begins to believe Aaron.
Suddenly, it’s about more than the fame and notoriety for Martin…he’s out to prove his client didn’t do it. But with so much evidence against him, how can he succeed?
I will go no further…first time viewers should be rewarded with the film’s gradually unfolding mystery. But as I said before, what I thought was sheer brilliance the first time raised a few uncomfortable questions during my second viewing. Certain elements of the plot are unnecessary…granted, you don’t know that the first time you see it, but they wear a little thin considering the film’s over two hour running time. And I found myself wondering something I never pondered before…is the whole outcome even plausible?
Well, I can’t argue the case for my suspicions without revealing what the movie has to offer. All I can say is, if you’re watching it for the first time and find it to be a near masterpiece, I won’t argue with you. But start it again from the beginning and then we’ll talk more.
I’ve always considered the 80s to be the most problematic decade in terms of film preservation, but we may be reaching an age where we have to consider the state of films from the 90s. Primal Fear is looking a little worse for wear…not terrible, mind you, but there is plenty of visible grain and noticeable softness throughout. The color schemes seem slightly muted, as though the years were beginning to take toll on the negative. It isn’t a bad experience, but far from what Blu-ray fans might be used to.
The TrueHD audio is good, considering how much of the film is oriented toward dialogue. There are moments of dynamic range here and there, but not a lot of demand for the rear channels or subwoofer. The score by James Newton Howard sounds quite nice, though.
There is a big group commentary with the director, writer, producers and others, along with a couple of retrospective featurettes on the making of the movie and the casting of Edward Norton. Rounding out is a trailer and a look at the psychology of guilt. Do not watch the extras first unless you want to spoil some surprises.
Some films just don’t hold up well under repeat scrutiny, and it saddens me to report that a brilliantly acted film that I once loved just didn’t impress me as much the second time around. Primal Fear satisfies, but the satisfaction isn’t lingering.