The Great Manipulator
Defence lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) never cares whether his client is guilty or innocent as he only cares about two things, getting his client off and raising his own profile. It is when Martin sees the news filled with footage of a blooded Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) being chased along a train track following the murder of a prominent Chicago archbishop that he jumps to represent the young man free of charge. It leads Martin to come up against ex-girlfriend Assistant District Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney) who is put in charge of the prosecution. As Martin and his team set about establishing a lack of motive and reasonable doubt they not only discover that the archbishop wasn't as innocent as he made himself out to be but through psychologist, Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), learns that Aaron has a multiple personality disorder.
Whilst it has now been an astonishing 20 years since "Primal Fear" was released it is as powerful as the first time I watched it and despite knowing the outcome still had me hooked from beginning to end. But that leads me to a problem as whilst many will know how "Primal Fear" plays out there will be as many who won't and many who won't immediately spot what is going on and so I feel a need to be reserved on how much I actually say.
So what I will say is a major theme of "Primal Theme" is manipulation and we watch as lawyer Martin Vail frames the case so that he isn't trying to prove whether Aaron is innocent all he is trying to do is to create enough reasonable doubt and a lack of motive to get his client off. So for example in the court when a detective says there was no evidence of a third person at the crime scene he responds by saying that there is no evidence there wasn't. And this courtroom back and forth as we get a moment of evidence and Martin creating a possible alternative goes on at quite a pace to highlight his skill at manipulating people and twisting things. But it is not just Martin's manipulation and others in this movie from the DA to cops are in the manipulation game.
Unfortunately I also have to be reserved when it comes to the acting as "Primal Fear" is also full of good performances especially from Richard Gere. Here we not only get sparkly eyed Gere who turns on the charm as a silver fox we also get the Gere who delivers impact like Al Pacino, who throws anger and passion into a performance to make the character of Vail attention grabbing right from the first time we meet him. Yet then you have Edward Norton who pretty much acts everyone off of the screen with his portrayal of a Kentucky Hick who has a stutter and is not educated. But it isn't in the accent or the playing it dumb or the fact as we learn he has multiple personalities, it is in the minor things, the twitch in the corner of his mouth and so on which draws you in.
What this all boils down to is that "Primal Fear" is as I said still as good as it was back in 1996 and in truth it has got a bit better with age. But it is a movie which needs to be watched to be appreciated as to write more would be to ruin the twists and the ending which are a big part of its appeal.