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Primal Fear (1996)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 3/10/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/3/2009

If you think about it, actors emerge usually emerge in one of two ways -- they either have bit parts here and there, or they suddenly make a huge splash. With the huge splash types, the emergence can simply be a short-lived thing, or it can have lasting power. Given this idea, it's difficult to imagine that Primal Fear was Edward Norton's feature-film debut (and according to IMDB.com, his first dramatic role). His performance is so powerful in the film (fueled by the great ending), that it's difficult to recall the rest of the movie. Paramount Home Entertainment has now released Primal Fear in a new "Hard Evidence Edition" (is that supposed to sound erotic?) so that we can take another look at the film.

Primal Fear introduces us to Chicago lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere). Once an assistant D.A., Vail has become a high-profile defense attorney and he loves to take on controversial cases. Because of this, he's made many enemies. When local religious figure Father Rushman (Stanley Anderson) is brutally murdered, a suspect, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), is apprehended near the scene, covered in blood. Hearing of this, Vail immediately meets with Aaron and agrees to take the case pro bono. Martin is delighted to see that his former lover Janet Venable (Laura Linney) will be the prosecuting attorney. Janet feels that she has the case wrapped-up, as Aaron was found at the scene of the crime. However, having met with the meek, stuttering Aaron, Martin feels that there's no why that this shy man-child could be guilty. As the trial progresses, both sides learn that many people involved had skeletons in their closets and things are rarely as they seem.

Most genres deal more with story than with a particular setting. Even something like a Western may seem confining at first, but when you think about it, it can take place in a town, in the dessert, in a saloon, etc. The courtroom drama is a unique genre as much of the story is probably going to be tied to one specific location -- the courtroom. Therefore, a courtroom drama must do something specific in order to stand out. Primal Fear does two things. For starters, it focuses on many aspects of Vail's life -- his other cases, his assistants, and his relationship with Janet. But, that isn't all that unusual. The other thing which the film does to distinguish itself from other courtroom dramas is the Vail steers the trial away from Aaron as much as possible. Knowing that he has to draw attention away from the fact that he doesn't have much of a case, Vail uses his time in the courtroom to draw into the question the lives and motives many of the other figures involved in the trial, from the church to the D.A.'s office. While the movie would have still been fairly interesting without all of this, it's nice to see a movie trying something different.

But, of course, it's the twist ending which makes Primal Fear so memorable. If you haven't seen the film, I'm not going to ruin the finale here, but suffice it to say that very few will see it coming the first time. While the twist comes from the story, it all hinges on the performance of Norton. And while he's been solid in other things, most notably American History X, the power of his performance really helps to sell what is admittedly a sort of far-fetched touch.

While the ending is a stunner, and the different takes on the courtroom drama make the film interesting, the rest of Primal Fear is decidedly mediocre. Gere is perfect in the role as the cocky, conceited lawyer, but his vain character wears thin rather quickly. And while the trail is somewhat interesting, ultimately the case isn't all that novel. Still, given that legal films can be boring, Primal Fear is just lively enough to be worth seeing.

Primal Fear is held in contempt on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is fairly sharp and clear, but it shows noticeable grain. There are some very moderate defects from the source materials, mostly small black spots. The colors are fairly good, but they look slightly washed out at times. The image also shows some blurring. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track provides good sound, as the dialogue is always sharp and clear, showing no hissing or distortion. The stereo effects are good, with good separation. The surround is a bit weak.

The Primal Fear DVD contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Gregory Hoblit, Writer Ann Biderman, Producer Gary Lucchesi, Executive Producer Hawk Koch, and Casting Director Deborah Aquila. This is a fairly good chat, although there are often lurches in the talk as they try to decided if they are remembering things correctly. They talk about locations, the actors, and the production. Some of the anecdotes are repeated in the other featurettes. "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict" (18 minutes) is a modern featurette which contains comments from Norton, Linney, Hoblit, Biderman, and Lucchesi. Notably absent is Gere. The speakers talk about how the story went from page to screen, how the actors got involved (apparently Gere had final approval on his co-stars), and the production. We get a glimpse of what I think was test footage and we learn about an entire subplot which was cut from the film. They talk about how the ending was shaped. "Primal Fear: Star Witness" (18 minutes) focuses on the search to find the actor to play Aaron. Norton, Hoblit, and Aquila talk about how Norton was cast, and we also he some names of actors who didn't get the part. We get to see Norton's screen test. "Psychology of Guilt" (14 minutes) is a mini-documentary which features a judge, a pscyhiatrist, and a psychologist discuss the definitions of insanity and the science of pleading insanity in a court case. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Paramount Home Entertainment has also brought Primal Fear to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a slight amount of grain and no defects from the source material. The colors are notably better than those seen on the DVD. The image is never too dark or bright. For a slightly older film, the depth is good, as is the level of detail. The Disc offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. For drama, the sound is good. Some scenes contain notably good stereo effects which show a nice level of detail. A scene involving a circling helicopter delivers impressive surround effects.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are the same as those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long