“Primal Fear” (1996) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, & Edward Norton

Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real. -Tag line

In Chicago, a 19 y.o. former altar boy, Aaron (Edward Norton- in his breakout role), is charged w/ the brutal murder of an archbishop. A well-known criminal lawyer, Martin Vail (Richard Gere), takes on his case pro bono. The prosecution is lead by Marty’s former colleague/ex-gf- Janet Venable (Laura Linney). Aaron was homeless before he was taken in by the religious leader; he’s shy, humble, and speaks w/ a stammer; this could make him look sympathetic to the jury. Marty is convinced that Aaron is innocent, but then he finds a disturbing video that shows Aaron may have had good reason to want the archbishop dead. One day, Aaron lashes out at Molly (Frances McDormand), the psychologist Marty hired to examine him; another personality (Roy) is revealed! With the trial underway, Martin can’t change Aaron’s (not guilty) plea; he tries to find a way to introduce his client’s mental condition.

[Marty is trying to woo Janet again]

Marty: Come on. Let’s go find a bar you can still smoke in.

Janet: Thanks for the invite, but I don’t like one-night stands all that much.

Martin: We saw each other for months.

Janet: It was a one-night stand, Marty. It just lasted six months.

I heard buzz about this film during the 1997 awards season; I never watched it until last week. The cast here is very strong, w/ everyone putting in a fine performance (incl. the minor players). I was (pleasantly) surprised to see Linney (who has great chemistry w/ Gere) and Andre Braugher (who plays Tommy, the PI/former cop). Maura Tierney plays Naomi, Marty’s legal secretary. John Mahoney plays DA Shaughnessy; he was Marty’s former boss. Look out also for a Jon Seda (ageless) as one of Aaron’s pals. The judge is played by Alfre Woodard. Director Gregory Hoblit is known for his work on legal and police dramas.

Marty: [sitting w/ journo in a bar] Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people’s lives? That was a joke. All right, I’ll tell you. I believe in the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty. I believe in that notion because I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things.

In the first act of the story, we see Marty as confident (bordering on arrogant) and publicity-seeking (followed by a journo doing a profile on him). He thinks his charm will convince Janet to see him again (though she isn’t having it); they flirt w/ and challenge each other. I liked all the scenes w/ Gere and Linney; they conveyed that they had a long relationship (which wasn’t all bad). In the end, we see Marty cut down to size and dejected (Gere’s breathing even changes, one viewer commented); he has been fooled by his manipulative client. Marty wanted so hard to believe in his client.

Marty: [while in Aaron’s solitary confinement room] I speak. You do not speak. Your job is to just sit there and look innocent.

I knew there was some big plot twist, but I thought Aaron and Roy would be two distinct personalities (but it’s Roy only)! Norton’s performance comes off as natural (you can’t see the acting); he gets to let loose in two particularly intense scenes. He worked several years in the theater, so knows how to use his body well (much is done w/ body language here). Norton is 26 y.o. in this movie, but he looks a bit younger (thanks to his haircut, speech, and mannerisms). Over 2,000 young male actors auditioned for the role of Aaron (wow) before Norton was chosen! Gere was so frustrated, so almost quit the movie, as the search continued. Though born in Boston, Norton was raised in the suburban DC area (Columbia, MD). I will check out more of his work; I’ve seen Rounders (w/ Matt Damon) and Birdman (which won some Oscars).

One thought on ““Primal Fear” (1996) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, & Edward Norton

  1. I don’t remember this (but I was in Germany at the time). I saw Norton recently (i.e., pre-pandemic) in Motherless Brooklyn and with hindsight, I’m not sure why the critics were so negative about that film. My basic impression remains positive at this point anyway.

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