Based off of a novel of the same name, Primal Fear was a huge film in 1996 for several reasons. Big time star Richard Gere was in yet another movie and the casting of Aaron in the film was one of the longest and grueling casting efforts for a film. Over two-thousand individuals were interviewed before Edward Norton was settled on and for many critics it was Norton’s performance that sold an otherwise ordinary film. Indeed, the film put Norton on the map with offers on the table before film was even shot for Primal Fear, which eventually ended up netting him an Oscar nomination.
A high-profile slaying becomes the case of an ambitious attorney’s career in this legal thriller based on the novel by William Diehl. Richard Gere stars as Martin Vail, a famed defense lawyer who volunteers his services to Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a Kentucky teenager charged with the murder of a Chicago archbishop. Covered with blood, Aaron was captured after a foot chase broadcast live on TV, making a gleeful Vail certain that he could raise his profile by defending the obviously guilty suspect. Assigned to prosecute is Assistant District Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney), who is Vail’s ex-girlfriend. Vail’s case becomes more complicated than he expected when a psychologist, Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand) concludes that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder.
Going into the film I really didn’t know what to expect. Despite being the debut of Edward Norton I’d actually never even heard of the film until recently (I remembered the cover, but a bird’s eye view of Richard Gere standing in the street pretty much tells you jack about a movie) and once I put it in I still wasn’t entirely sure what was so great about the film. Everything was pretty basic until Norton’s performance took a turn and then I saw what was so hyped about the film. From the instant “Roy” comes out, Primal Fear becomes one of the most intense and engaging psychodramas I’ve ever seen. Of course it’s slightly less potent now knowing that Norton’s role got him nominated, so I figured something would happen eventually to his otherwise timid character, but still…it’s a shocking turn nonetheless.
And that’s really all this film has going for it. It’s pretty much a one trick pony. The whole Richard Gere and his love interest bit really didn’t mean anything to me (I never was a Gere fan to begin with) and as interesting as it was to see Terry O’Quinn before his Lost days, there wasn’t a whole lot in this film that kept my attention on screen aside from the sequences with Norton (the ones between him and Frances McDormand especially are some of the best out of the entire film). Sadly the big “twist” ending, while not spoiled for me, didn’t even really click with me in the shocking way it was supposed to. I simply wasn’t prepared for the film to throw that at me and while it could be conceived as a unique, it almost just felt…unnecessary and kind of cheap at the same time. But hey, right as Gere left the cell the first time I was lamenting I wouldn’t see more of Norton in this role when…surprise, I got more!
So in that regard, Primal Fear really is a one trick pony; it throws a good twist at you, but aside from that there’s not much to set it apart from other psychological dramas of its type. Hell it’s not even something that’s much different than you’d see from a Law and Order type episode, and quite frankly the “A” plot (Gere and crew) is a lot less interesting than “B” plot (Norton). There just really isn’t much in this film that’s all that engaging other than Norton, but that’s also not really a bad thing.
It’s a thirteen year old movie at this point, which in of itself is a bit staggering to think about. A thing I found interesting about the film is that despite being produced in 1996, the soundtrack sounded like something from a 1980s action flick (think Top Gun), especially when that rock guitar chimed in for no real reason. Again, not something to detract from the film, but just something that sprang to mind while watching it. Overall Primal Fear is an entertaining movie, no doubt about that. But it really is a one hit-wonder. Once you witness the twist, there isn’t much to keep you coming back, unless you’re like me and are endlessly fascinated with Norton’s portrayal in the film for some reason.
Though one thing I do have to pick with this film—what exactly does the film’s title have to do with the plot? I can understand the “Primal” part kind of, due to the savage nature of the murder in the film, but…”Fear”? Who’s fearing anyone? A misleading title…well, not so much misleading as it doesn’t tell you squat about the film (thankfully the new “Hard Evidence Edition” cover tosses both Gere and Norton on the cover, cause if they re-used that old cover then it’d still tell you nothing about the film at all). Recommended.
Released on both DVD and Blu-ray with the new “Hard Evidence Edition” moniker, this release comes with all-new extras (all very much lacking in Gere’s participation). The film arrives in a standard Blu-ray Elite case without any inserts at all (not even a firmware notice) and disc art that’s the usual gray wash. Menus are simple and easy to navigate.
Video arrives in an AVC encoded transfer that neither impresses nor offends. The film is mostly in-doors with court room and jail cell time (with a few bar scenes thrown in for good measure). Aside from fantastic looking hair on Gere, there isn’t much to marvel at here; detail is solid, clarity is high…but other than that, there just isn’t a whole lot here to marvel at (and there are some usual 90s vibes from the picture, with high grain and flat backdrops cropping up at times). The same goes for the audio track, a Dolby TrueHD mix, as aside from some early (and well defined) thunder from rolling trains, the film doesn’t even make much of a peep in the surrounds or subwoofer area. Not necessarily disappointing, as the film just isn’t something that needs a deeply engaging surround mix—the plot itself does that well enough on its own.
The extras, however, are where this edition really signs. The previously mentioned DVD release was the only release this film ever received, so this new release is a long time coming. The first extra is a Commentary by Director Gregory Hoblit, Writer Ann Biderman, Producer Gary Lucchesi, Executive Producer Hawk Koch, and Casting Director Deborah Aquila, which is as informative as it is packed with commentators. Sadly Norton is absent here, but everyone involved here chimes in with plenty of great quips about the production of the film.
Next up is an array of newly recorded extras, all presented in 1080p with some original standard definition footage mixed in for good measure. First is Primal Fear: The Final Verdict (17:59), a brief and retrospective overview of the film’s production, while Primal Fear: Star Witness-Casting Edward Norton (17:56) focuses on the casting of Norton in the role that started his career and finally The Psychology of Guilt (13:35) which looks into the history of multiple personality disorder in terms of court cases. The extras are brief but more than worth watching, especially the Norton piece as it’s interesting to see him still so humbled by the film and his recounting of the time spent while audition for the role still makes him a bit giddy to talk about it.
Overall this is a fantastic re-release for the film and is definitely worth a double dip. The transfer is a bit lacking, but the extras are worth checking out and anyone who really enjoyed the film should have no issue trading up to this release. Recommended.
Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on March 10th.