Law and Order: Cinematic Intent: Primal Fear


April 25, 2012 by abbyo

Greetings, readers! Sorry for my inconsistent posting of late—things have been mighty busy on this end the last couple of weeks, and I’m afraid I just haven’t been able to keep up. It seems, however, that things are getting more or less back to normal, and I’ll be back on a regular posting schedule soon.

This week starts the beginning of a brand-new feature on “No More Popcorn,” which I’m calling Law and Order: Cinematic Intent. Here’s how it works. Each month, I’ll feature a movie that focuses either on lawyers or police. The subject of choice will switch from month to month. The only guidelines: No feds (meaning any movie involving the C.I.A. or F.B.I. is out), and no private detectives. I hope you’ll enjoy this new branch of NMP movie exploration. That being said, let’s move on to our first featured movie: 1996’s “Primal Fear!”

I started this new feature because I’d been craving some good old fashioned 90s courtroom dramas. You know the kind I mean. The ones usually based on something John Grisham wrote, where the idealistic-but-troubled attorney spends a lot of time poring over briefs and evidence, and convinces the jury his way through a charismatic and brilliant courtroom performance. As I began thinking about which one I’d like to see, I kept thinking about all the ones I hadn’t yet watched, and wanted to. And so, “Law and Order: Cinematic Intent” was born.

But the first movie I watched, “Primal Fear,” didn’t exactly deliver in the ways I thought it would. It has impassioned courtroom performance, and it has a cast of interesting supporting characters and some impressive acting from its defendant, played here by Edward Norton in his Oscar-nominated screen debut. But what it lacks is anything resembling likeability. Perhaps I felt this way because the ending of the movie had been ruined for me years before, but nearly everything about “Primal Fear” rang totally false to me. There are plenty of people that could be blamed for this—director Gregory Hoblit, for example, or the screenwriters. But I don’t blame them. I blame one man and one man only: the film’s star, Richard Gere.

First of all, it should be stated that I am not a big Gere fan. I’ve never seen him in a movie when he looked anything other than smug. He’s always exuding the sense that he knows his good looks and charm will get him everything he wants. Fortunately for him, he’s usually in the position of playing protagonists, so this mostly gets forgiven. But “Primal Fear” has him playing a criminal defense attorney, which doesn’t exactly fit the “guys you root for” mold. Not only that, Gere’s character, Martin Vail, is also a vain and wealthy criminal defense attorney who seems to enjoy the adrenaline rush of the courtroom more than defending clients who are actually innocent. But despite the reactions of everyone else around him, Gere never plays Vail that way. He plays him as someone with all the conviction of Atticus Finch mixed with all the self-assured douchery of, well, Richard Gere.

In the film, Gere’s Martin Vail takes on a high-profile murder case involving the slaughter of a respected Archbishop. The only suspect is young Aaron Stampler (Norton), discovered fleeing the crime scene covered in blood. At first, Vail takes Stampler because he wants the attention, but then comes to believe that his client is truly innocent, despite a big fat motive, no other suspects, and a lack of evidence to suggest that anyone else could have done it. But Vail remains convinced, and does his utmost to prove Aaron’s innocence, while also settling a personal vendetta with his old boss, a corrupt district attorney with a personal interest in the case.

That sounds pretty compelling, right? The right elements are there: lawyer with an axe to grind, defendant in distress, broken legal system. But there are some big issues that keep this story from being what it could be. One major obstacle is that it’s pretty obvious from moment one that Aaron is guilty, and there’s no way Vail would be able to get him off scot free. The best thing he could possibly manage is a mistrial, which he achieves simply by being obnoxious and breaking every rule of the courtroom.

Then there’s the problem of Vail himself. As I mentioned, Gere makes the fatal (and, frankly, bizarre) mistake of not realizing his character is flawed. There isn’t a single scene where he doesn’t think he’s the smartest, most important human being in the room. What’s interesting is everyone else’s reaction to that behavior. It starts out as affirming. Laura Linney pretends to have sexual chemistry with him. A reporter profiling Vail hangs on his every word as though nuggets of pure gold are constantly spewing forth from his mouth. Even Edward Norton is appropriately awed. But somewhere along the way, that reaction shifts. The characters (and, I suspect, the actors) start to tire of Gere’s nonsense, and it shows. Check out this scene, where Vail calls the reporter to a bar in the middle of the night (after his profile has been published, mind you) to spout drunken wisdom, and note how the reporter treats him:

The reporter thinks this was a mistake. It’s late, he’s tired, Vail has nothing of substance to say and, what’s more, he won’t even get to use this in publication (after this clip ends, Vail mentions that all of this is off the record). But Gere doesn’t play this scene pathetic, or frustrated, or even drunk, really. He gives this aimless monologue as though it’s something of actual importance. It’s hard not to imagine the other actor in this scene reacting to Gere the same way the reporter’s character reacts to Vail. Just nod, let him talk, and eventually we can all go home.

I’m sure it doesn’t help Gere that he’s provided with a script that makes it easy to play up this kind of behavior. But acting is all about choices, and he appears to be the only one in the film incapable of making the right ones. Linney gets it. So does Alfre Woodard, who does great work as a no-nonesense judge. Edward Norton, a newbie at the time, was good enough to get an Oscar nod. But when your star has their head so far the wrong way that up becomes down, all the natural acting in the world isn’t going to fix that problem. What we’re left with in “Primal Fear” is a movie that should be good, but instead feels hollow and soulless.

Random observation:

The film’s poster doesn’t do much to help matters. If you check out the background, the light behind Gere is in the shape of an angel’s wing. Oy vey.


One thought on “Law and Order: Cinematic Intent: Primal Fear

  1. another thing about that scene in the bar, when he says the money is very very good: Unless you have some high profile clients, the money for criminal defense is not all that good.
    Thanks for pointing out the angel’s wing.

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