Martin Vail (very good Richard Gere) is a cynical attorney that seems to be almost as popular as top movie stars. In the first part of the movie “Primal Fear”, directed by Gregory Hoblit, he is presented as a lawyer that cares about fame more than about justice. That’s why when the police arrests Aaron Stampler (incredible Edward Norton) – a 19-year-old boy suspected of brutal murdering of the Bishop of Chicago, who was beloved by the local community, Vail wills to defend him pro bono. The guilt is pretty obvious – Aaron was on the crime scene and his covered with the victim’s blood, but the attorney knows how to turn a seemingly hopeless case into a spectacular win. Nevertheless, Hoblit’s thriller is not a story of a spectacular defence that leads to freeing the murderer, but a frapping drama of doubts, manipulation and evil genius.
Most of the action takes place in a Chicago courtroom, where extremely determined to win Vail and his opponent – equally craving for win prosecutor – Janet Venable (very good Laura Linney) are doing everything they can to put the jury on their side. Hearings of witnesses are brutal and painful for both – those who answer and those who listen. Hoblit presents the microcosm of a courtroom as extremely ruthless – the fight is not only about life or death of the accused but also – at least initially – about personal victory of two great lawyers that know no boundaries. Another important part of the plot is set in a prison cell, where Vail and doctor Molly Arrington (great Frances McDormand) are discovering that Aaron’s guilt is not so obvious and learn about the boy’s dark past and traumatic experiences that are connected to the murdered bishop who – as it turns out – wasn’t so saint after all. In “Primal Fear” the main action is complemented by a reflection on the dangerous connections between the church and the politics and on the phenomena of a way the religious figures function in public, common imagination.
The biggest advantage of the movie is its subversive construction. The director uses the motif of having two faces in many different contexts – of schizophrenic identity that produces new selves when the original one is too weak and to traumatized to deal with reality, of differences between public and private life and human ability of playing roles in the everyday theatre, and – last but not least – in the dramaturgical structure of the entire story that begins like a typical court drama in which guilt is obvious and the focus is put on the (im)morality of lawyers, but slowly reveals its hidden intrigue that it’s based on.
Hoblit shows in “Primal Fear” his incredible talent of turning obviousness into a dangerous labyrinth of doubts. With the protagonist we are trying to reach the truth and when we are about to celebrate the victory of justice and fairness, the director hits us from the back and laughs loud – just like a man that has just outwitted the universe. The way the plot spreads and reveals its intrigues and secrets is parallel to the way that Aaron’s mind reveals its complexity. Even the character of the cynical attorney changes – Vail, who initially was fighting for fame, redirects his purposes and starts to care about both – truth and life of his client. What’s important, despite of all unexpected twists and revealed secrets, the movie doesn’t lose its tempo and the dramaturgical construction remains both – coherent and incredibly frapping.