By Dan Skip Allen
Courtroom dramas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. A lot of them have flashy lawyers played by a who's who of Hollywood A-listers. The lawyer is usually considered the star of courtroom dramas. In the case of Primal Fear, the star lawyer in the film is Martin Vail, played by Richard Gere. He's a hot defense attorney on the news at night and the cover of magazines. The star power of Richard Gere is all a film like Primal Fear needed, but it has a hell of a lot more star power in it. The least of which is Academy Award nominee Edward Norton as Aaron Stampler.
Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a hotshot lawyer who defends the biggest criminals in Chicago. He gets them settlements and results for himself. When an altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is caught running from a murder scene at the house of a prominent priest in Chicago, Archbishop Rushman, covered in his blood. Vail zeroes in on this high-profile case. This could be the whale he's been trying to catch for his entire career. Does all the evidence point to this altar boy or is there more to this case than meets the eye?
Looking back at Primal Fear is an incredible thing because of the story based on the novel by William Deihl. This is an amazing story of mistaken identity or possibly multiple personality disorder. This film has an amazing cast that all play their roles terrifically. From the prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney) to the shrink Molly (Frances McDormand) to the Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard), this cast is packed! Andre Braugher, John Maloney, Maura Tierney are just a few more names in this film that all do excellent work. The real star is Edward Norton! It's the role of a lifetime for him and he got robbed of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Primal Fear has a great story, but it's the twist that makes it work. Gere's character has to sell his side of the story. If he does, the jury and audience can buy into the twist. This film is a classic whodunnit, but everybody already knows who done it. Or do they? The twists and turns in this film are off the wall, which makes it a great courtroom drama. This film isn't straightforward. That's a good thing because it keeps everybody on the edge of their seats throughout. All great courtroom dramas have this effect.
The director, Gregory Hoblit, takes the words of the author and puts them into capable hands: the actors'. He creates an atmosphere that the actors bring their a-game in every scene. He films the courtroom scenes with a lot of up-close shots so the viewers can see all the emotions on the actor's faces as they perform this great dialogue. All great films start with the script and the source material. This film is no different than all the rest in that regard.
Primal Fear takes the classic courtroom drama and turns it on its head. It has great performances from the entire cast, but most notably from Gere and Norton. They both give career-best performances in this film. Hoblit put the camera in the right places every time including a lot of close-ups. The script is terrifically acted out by everybody involved in the film. The suspense was there every moment Norton was on screen. He gives one of the best performances ever as the altar boy with multiple personalities. This is the main reason why this film is so great!
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