"Fui bailar no meu batel alem do mar cruel," sings modern fadista Dulce Pontes in this movie's dynamic title song: "I went dancing in my boat, there on the cruel sea." And it must be just like a nutshell-sized boat dancing on a stormy ocean's waves that nineteen-year-old Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) feels after his arrest for the savage murder of Chicago's saintly Archbishop Rushman. Or does it?
Certainly it doesn't help that Aaron was caught running from the crime scene, covered in blood, and with the archbishop's ring in his pocket. Besides, who is going to believe him anyway - a stuttering, uneducated boy from rural Kentucky who was found begging by the powerful clergyman, taken in as an altar boy and made to sing in his choir - that he was present when the murder was committed but can't remember a single thing because he blacked out? Nobody; surely not the police and ADA Janet Venable (Laura Linney), assigned by D.A./Rushman friend Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) personally to try the case, with the express mandate to obtain a death penalty conviction. Nobody, that is, except Aaron's defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere). Vail, of all people: the flamboyant ADA-turned-private-practitioner, the star attorney not shying away from even the shadiest client, to whom TV and magazine cover interviews are as second nature as his courtroom appearances, and who cynically quotes as his mottos a professor's maxims on his first day in law school: "From this day forward, if your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion." And: "If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you want to get f**ked, go to court."
"Primal Fear" was adapted from William Diehl's like-named bestselling novel and, like in many literary adaptations, its screenplay is a hit-and-miss affair. Not successful, in my view, are those alterations that unnecessarily make Vail an even more ethically questionable lawyer as already conceived by Diehl; such as the way he becomes Stampler's attorney in the first place (which in the movie amounts to blatant client solicitation; not to mention that no sane lawyer would introduce himself to a potential client with the words "I'm what you call a 'big shot' attorney"), and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a tape revealing the archbishop's not-so-nice private side (which in the novel isn't found by Vail but by his investigator Tommy Goodman [Andre Braugher]: of course that doesn't eliminate Vail's ultimate ethical responsibility, but contrarily to the movie, at least he doesn't "borrow" the tape from the crime scene himself, and he doesn't know in advance what Tommy is up to). Further, in the book the tape is not shown in open court and immediately introduced into evidence but viewed in the presence of only the judge and the attorneys, which given its contents seems more realistic (even if it were later introduced into evidence after all). On the other hand, particularly regarding the main characters the movie's alterations work well: Unethical or not, Richard Gere's Martin Vail is even more interesting than the character devised by Diehl; moreover, an unnecessarily cliched, ultraconservative judge nicknamed "Hangin'" Harry Shoat becomes an - although still tough - overall more multidimensional Judge Miriam Shoat (Alfre Woodard); similarly, Vail's mafia-affiliated client Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer) gains considerably in stature; and although it actually reinforces cliche to shift the love/sex relationship from the book's present one between Vail and psychiatrist Dr. Arrington (Frances McDormand) to the screenplay's past one between Vail and Venable (which the ADA now derogatorily calls "a one-night-stand [that] lasted six months"), thanks to Gere's and Linney's considerable on-screen chemistry their characters' personal relationship adds sparks and tension to their professional rivalry that also lend greater credibility to the final courtroom scene's powder-keg explosion.
Outstanding as all of its actors are, however, "Primal Fear" rises and falls with the performance of Edward Norton, and it is his breathtaking achievement that validates the movie more than anything. Then-newcomer Norton not only had to portray a boy almost a decade younger than himself (which he manages flawlessly) but also an incredibly complex character, sometimes shifting behavioral patterns, accents and manners of speech from one sentence to the next; and he delivers supremely, deservedly garnering an Oscar nomination (which in a year of extremely tight competition he lost to Cuba Gooding Jr. for "Jerry Maguire"), as well as a Golden Globe and several other awards, and together with his roles in "People vs. Larry Flynt" and Woody Allen's "Everybody Says I Love You" playing himself into public awareness once and, hopefully, for all.
Although "Primal Fear" is often cited for its final plot twist, anybody who has seen more than that occasional thriller can see its end coming somewhere halfway through the narrative (and I think that's true for both book and film - although I admit I hadn't read the novel when I first saw the movie). Moreover, the final twist depends on a feat on the part of Norton's character that lawyers and psychiatrists alike will find hard to take at face value. Thus, at first viewing this movie's end may appear a bit of a let-down. But trust me: The story grows on you the more often you watch it, and in my view it actually helps to know the end, because not only does this enable you to see the many nuances you necessarily missed the first time around; it also frees you to think about the moral issues addressed. For those reasons, and for the entire cast's - first and foremost Edward Norton's - fine performances, this has long become one of my favorite courtroom thrillers.
"[I believe that] things are not always as they appear, that sometimes facts can be manipulated the way a magician manipulates an audience. He distracts you with this hand, while the other hand does the tricks. It's called misdirection." - "Primal Fear," preface: from Martin Vail's summation in a case entitled "The State vs. Nicholas Luma."