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Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a high profile defence lawyer at the top of his game. When the word comes down of Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a Kentucky teenager charged with the murder of a Chicago archbishop, Vail volunteers his services, knowing that the case will bring him even more celebrity, in spite of the outcome. Assigned to prosecute is Assistant District Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney), Vail's ex-girlfriend, and an ex-co-worker. But the case becomes more complicated when a psychologist, Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), concludes that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
Despite Halloween and Black Christmas the slasher is largely an ‘80s genre. Superman and Batman notwithstanding, the superhero film is largely a genre belonging to this decade. As I re-watch Primal Fear for what must be the sixth or seventh time (I swear that it plays on cable at least once a month) I realize that the courtroom thriller is, a few important films aside, really a ‘90s genre. More specifically, courtroom thrillers based on paperbacks that sold millions at airports around the world are a largely ‘90s genre. John Grisham adaptations pretty much ruled the roost, just as Tom Clancy adaptations pretty much ruled the equally ‘90s (and late, late ‘80s) political thriller genre, but other authors fought their way into the fray, like Willam Diehl, with his popular novel Primal Fear.

As if the whole thing wasn’t ‘90s enough, Primal Fear spends almost equal time with its murder suspect, who happens to have some pretty serious mental problems, which sort of makes it comparable to the third most quintessentially ‘90s genre—the serial killer film. It’s not a full on The Silence of the Lambs type thing, but there are some striking similarities.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
Formulas aside, Primal Fear does feature more impressive photography than the average Grisham-esque objection-fest, and the plot features a delectably sordid streak. The whole story is ultimately all about the final twist, which is an unfortunate result of most good twist endings, but the lead up still reveals a decent, and ultimately re-watchable little film. It’s also one of a select few twist endings that doesn’t lead to any plot holes. Beyond a nice look, and a enduring narrative, the film is very sharply edited, including stylish bits (a brief a brutal murder), and a whole lot of story serving structural bits (the courtroom scenes are very fast paced, and cover both the prosecution and defence’s questions as if they were a conversation).

I find it a little curious that the film continues to be so popular, but suspect it has a whole lot to do with Edward Norton’s ‘throw down the gauntlet’ performance. Norton is great, but it’s a really flashy and layered role, one that several other young actors probably could’ve scored with. Since then Norton’s proven he has the chops, and that he wasn’t a one trick pony, so I think it’s fair to be a little critical of his performance looking back. Richard Gere and Laura Linney are really the centre of the film, and despite the huge twist that’ll make even the most attentive viewer forget what worked about the rest of the film, their final scene together is probably the most impressive thing in the film. I spent years as an anti-fan of Gere’s, and this is the role that turned me around on him. I just wish he wasn’t only making boring love stories for middle-aged women these days.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

Video


Primal Fear features some good photography, but none of it is particularly stylized. Cinematographer Michael Chapman captures a gloomy and overcast outdoor Chicago, and he lights the jail, bars and interrogation rooms with a soft red light. In hi-def, the outdoor scenes feature higher contrast, sometimes even appearing black and white, while the reddened scenes are evenly and softly bathed. The overall print is quite clean, though the softness leads to less impressive details, and less impressive contrast (save those pretty overcast shots). Sometimes the white walls reveal the film’s age in the form of noise, but there aren’t any easy to point to artefacts. This print is more impressive than the blocky version I’ve most often seen on television, but I’m not seeing a huge difference between this release, and the previous DVD version (though it’s been a very long time since I saw it).

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

Audio


Primal Fear’s drama is mostly found in its dialogue, and its character’s inflection, so it’s no surprise that this TrueHD 5.1 track isn’t the most ass-kickingest on the block. Still, it’s a pretty weak track for HD, featuring very little bass, and very few surround effects. The overall volume is consistent throughout the track (whispering voices are as easily discernable as shouting ones), but I found myself turning the volume to pretty high levels just to hear it at all. The dialogue is perfectly centred, while the stereo channels (and every so often the rear channels) leak out most of the music. There are some truly inspired bits of music, but on the whole James Newton Howard’s score is predictable, and generally overbearing. It may be the dated nature of the score, which features flangy, fretless bass, and wailing electric guitars over the more traditional strings and keyboards.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

Extras


This new edition of Primal Fear begins with a commentary featuring director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, casting director Deborah Aquila, executive producer Hawk Koch, and regular producer Gary Lucchesi. For such a busy room, the track is surprisingly bare. There are long stretches of silence, and when the participants do speak they tend to talk over each other, or become briefly sidetracked, and almost everything important said here can be found in the following featurettes.

‘Primal Fear: The Final Verdict’ is an enjoyable retrospective featurette, featuring interviews with most of the writers, producers, director, and actors Norton and Linney. It’s brief (only eighteen minutes), and it’s a bit self congratulatory in tone, but it covers the important bits of writing (or rather re-writing, as it was based on a book), casting, filming, the erasure of a major subplot (the deleted scenes are unavailable, but there are some stills), etc. For some reason Gere doesn’t participate, and the way the cast and crew speak about him you’d think the guy was dead. On a personal tangent—the producers shower Norton with credit for creating the character’s stutter, which I’d always assumed he’d just taken from Brad Dourif’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest performance.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
‘Primal Fear: Star Witness’ is another eighteen minute retrospective featurette, this time focused specifically on the process of hiring Norton. Apparently the production saw about a hundred million young men before finding their golden boy, though the only name they name is Leonardo DiCaprio. The featurette runs mostly on talking head interviews, though it also features Norton’s original reel.

‘Psychology of Guilt’ finishes off the set (along with a trailer), with an intriguing look at real life psychological diseases, and their real life place in criminal trials. There’s a longer documentary somewhere in here, at least something for cable television. As is the featurette only runs about thirteen and a half minutes, while the information could easily fill an hour. There are some specific examples of famous criminals who attempted to get off using the insanity plea, but the stories are quite brief.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition

Overall


I’ve seen it too many times, and I’m not a very big fan of the courtroom sub-genre, but Primal Fear still stands up as an entertaining piece of film entertainment. The film will continue to be best known for Edward Norton’s inaugural Hollywood performance, which garnered an Oscar nom, but endures beyond a single actor and character. This new Blu-ray release isn’t a huge cause for celebration, as the A/V is pretty middling, and the new extras merely whet the appetite for longer and more in-depth features.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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