Primal Fear

January 28, 2012 7 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Based on the novel by William Diehl, “Primal Fear” hit screens in 1996 and introduced the world to a young, almost unheard of actor. That actor? Edward Norton. The movie followed the story of a young choir boy who was accused of murdering an Archbishop in Chicago. Richard Gere played the lead role of Martin Vail, but it was Norton who stole the show and even ended up with an Academy Award Nomination to his credit (his first of two…so far). The novel also had a follow-up, “Show of Evil”, but that hasn’t yet made it to the screen, and with nearly ten years since the original it’s looking less and less likely. What set this movie apart from other “lawyer” movies (mainly by John Grisham) is that we knew the main character was scum (Gere). He’s egotistical, suave and good-looking – the hero you love to hate. He takes cases not because he wants to defend them, but because of where and how many times that he can get his name in the paper and photo in magazines. There’s no sense in doing something if you can’t get credit for it, right?

The trouble all starts when an archbishop is brutally murdered. We don’t see who did it, but when the television cameras televise the chase, we end up with a scared, frightened young boy from Kentucky (Edward Norton). This looks like an open and shut case and Defense Attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is so in love with the case, that he wants to have it at any cost. “Cost” is the key word here as he takes the case pro-bono, knowing the exposure is much more valuable than any money he could get. As he gets to know Aaron (Norton), we see that he has a multiple personality disorder and his alter ego is Roy. A psychiatrist (Frances McDormand in a year that she would go onto win her Best Actress Oscar for “Fargo”) is in charge of determining if he really has two personalities or he’s just faking it to get out of the bind he’s in. We get to know Martin Vail as a shallow, self-centered sort of person and we’re meant not to like him. He’s a womanizer and has had relations with Janet Venable (Laura Linney), his opposition in the courtroom, in the past. Does Aaron/Roy exist and is this a plot to get out of lifetime imprisonment or is this confused person truly the victim here?

What “Primal Fear” will probably be known for is the casting. At the time, Richard Gere was the only well-known major star, but since then Edward Norton, Laura Linney and Frances McDormand have all gone onto very successful movie careers. The movie takes place in Chicago, always a favorite when New York or Los Angeles isn’t in the cards. The performances are outstanding and only recently has Richard Gere actually had a better role than the one he played here (ironically enough, he played another lawyer in “Chicago” and was overlooked for an Academey Award Nomination). This is the kind of timeless, gritty movie that doesn’t really seem to be dated and doesn’t underestimate the audience either. For those who haven’t had a chance to see this gem from the mid 90’s, it’s one of the more underrated films of the last ten years and should the sequel ever hit the screen, I’ll be first in line.

Video: How does it look?

This was one of Paramount’s first DVD’s to enter the market, the second wave if memory serves. Their first wave had all been anamorphic, but they decided to go the other way with some more of their earlier releases and this was one of them. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic image is rather strong, though we can see that getting a new transfer would certainly help the way it looks on screen. The movie is shot with some interesting viewpoints, a spinning camera angle that seems to do a circle around the actors. Though some edge enhancement does exist, it’s not too noticeable and there is some dirt on the print as well. Technology has improved a lot since this arrived on DVD (and at the time, the movie was only a few years old). If anyone out there is listening, this is a title that could use a new anamorphic transfer as soon as possible. While certainly not the worst, this could look so much better; but it is watchable.

Audio: How does it sound?

A rather strong Dolby Digital 5.1 track takes hold at the very first scene, when a train makes use of the front three channels. Dialogue is perfect without any loss and though the surrounds aren’t used in depth, they do make their presence known from time to time. Again, this was in the early days of the format and even in the early days of “ture” Dolby Digital 5.1 sound; so we all marveled at how little sounds could come out of so many channels. While there are movies that surpass this, I was rather impressed by the range of sound that this disc possesses. A good soundtrack for the time and one that still holds up well today.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Only a theatrical trailer is included.

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