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Primal Fear
1996 - R - 129 Mins.
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Producer: Gary Lucchesi
Written By: Steve Shagan
Starring: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, Steven Bauer
Review by: John Ulmer
   
With each and every passing of a week it becomes evidently clearer that Hollywood's fixation on making the almighty dollar is much more important than creating quality material. Alas, when the great films do eventually come our way, they seem like masterpieces. Hence this entire "Lord of the Rings" craze.

"Primal Fear" is a quiet masterpiece. It's an Oscar contender at heart, hidden beneath a layer of assorted cliches and plot twists. Does that mean the movie is bad? Not by a long shot. It's terribly entertaining and splendidly acted, particularly by a young Edward Norton. It's a fine movie in almost every respect, although it has a few minor flaws that prevent it from becoming completely excellent.

In a nutshell: Norton is the 19-year-old who kills the archbishop of a church in Chicago; Gere is his attorney who takes on the case.

Gere doesn't care whether his clients are guilty or not. "I just do my job. It's not like I'm friends with them," he says. But he connects with his newest client in a way unlike he ever has before. "I think he's innocent," he tells one of his co-workers. "I think he's telling the truth."

The stuttering 19-year-old Kentucky boy has no clear motive for killing the archbishop. They are related only through the fact that he was a choirboy for the church and the archbishop had taken him in off the streets. But the clues start to connect and soon they find out that sweet ol' choirboy may have split personality disorder--his other side, Roy, comes into play when his normal side becomes hassed and hurt. The stutters fade away and an evil side shines through--an evil side that admits to killing the archbishop.

Of course, we all know that it doesn't stop there. Movies like these never stop once they start going; it's like when you flatten a poster and it keeps rolling back up. Only in this case, everything's unrolling itself until we finally get to see the full picture on the front of the poster. Sometimes it's different than we think it'll be. Sometimes it's exactly what we knew it looked like.

The latter is the case with "Primal Fear." I guessed every twist early on, and who didn't see the ending coming? But this is simply one of the best Hollywood thrillers in years. When the twists finally reveal themselves, the impact is still as startling as if you were totally blown away and unsuspecting of any more surprises.

The cast is certainly top-notch. Along with Gere and the then-unknown Norton, there is Frances McDormand, Laura Linney, John Mahoney and Steven Bauer (Tony's pal from DePalma's "Scarface," in case you're wondering).

Richard Gere is undeniably good at playing lawyers. He played one in "Chicago" last year, and he also plays one in "Primal Fear" (which takes place in Chicago). The reason, I think, is because he's sleazy--or at least good at playing sleazy. He was sleazy in "Pretty Woman" and pretty close to a lawyer there. "Primal Fear" is one of his greatest roles--but he's really not the reason it works.

Edward Norton makes this film work. It takes a great kind of character actor to be able to play such versatile roles, like the stuttering farmboy in "Primal Fear" and the mentally-challenged-conman-who-isn't-really-mentally-challenged in "The Score" (another terrific film). In the same vein of "Fight Club," this is a film about identities and coming to terms with the fact that you aren't who you think you are--which is, in a way, one of Hollywood's most overused ideas as of recent years. ("Total Recall," "Identity," "Impostor," "Fight Club," "The Matrix," "The Thirteenth Floor," etc.)

But this is one of the best examples of the formula done justice.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

 
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