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Primal Fear

(1996) *** R
130 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Gregory Hoblit. Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, John Mahoney, Edward Norton.

/content/films/3360/1.jpgGregory Hoblit's juicy thriller Primal Fear—based on the novel by William Diehl—gave an established star a good role and made a star out of an unknown stage actor. Richard Gere stars as Chicago criminal defense attorney Martin Vail, while Edward Norton debuts as nineteen-year-old Aaron Stampler, a stuttering altar boy from Kentucky. Stampler is the defendant in a high-profile, tabloid-friendly murder trial: the so-called "Butcher Boy" stands accused of slaying Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson). Stampler maintains his innocence, but when Vail uncovers a substantive motive (a lurid sex tape), he realizes he'll have an even harder time convincing a jury of what he's come to believe: that Stampler is innocent.

Screenwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman kick off the film with Vail giving a magazine reporter a cover-story interview, in which Vail lays professional claim to his "version" of the truth: "the illusion of truth." The comment primes the pump for an unfolding mystery in which truth is elusive, and twists are the order of the day. One involves the growing suspicion that Stampler may have a dissociative identity disorder, or split personality, making him an "alter" boy (that pun aside, there's even a possible literary clue, no doubt suggested by Norton himself: Stampler is reading Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in his cell.) Another area of distraction comes from Chicago's archetypal political corruption, a web that includes Vail's sworn enemy—his former boss, State's Attorney John Shaughnessey (John Mahoney)—and his best client, a mobster named Pinero (Steven Bauer).

Hoblit and cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) given the film a dark feel, with deep and encroaching shadows living in every space of the frame, and the deep-bench cast is full of reliable talents: Frances McDormand as a psychologist, Alfre Woodard as the judge, Terry O'Quinn as a D.A., and Maura Tierney and Andre Braugher as Vail's team. The then-unknown Laura Linney, as Assistant State's Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney), makes a formidable opponent for Vail, in no small part because she knows him so well, having once worked alongside him and having known him Biblically.

In the end, the film belongs to Gere and Norton, and the unusual desperate bond formed between the two. The Teflon lawyer lets his young client get to him. For once, the truth seems relevant, and the case gets personal: it's one Vail feels he has to win. As for Stampler, who projects the wide-eyed haplessness of a kid in way over his head, he's fighting for his life, and the complete truth about what put him in a cell—when it climactically emerges—gives Norton a career-making opportunity to strut his stuff.




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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 3/16/2009

Distributor: Paramount Home Video

Primal Fear gets a high-def upgrade in its Blu-ray debut, with an improved transfer and brand-new extras (mirrored on DVD). The previous DVD edition was murky and technically deficient, and the Blu-ray makes it look like ancient news. Detail is much improved, while retaining a film-like look with film grain that suggests DNR isn't responsible for a somewhat soft feel. There's a bit of vertical bounce and horizontal jittering to the image, but the otherwise accurate rendering of color and shadow detail still makes this a well-worthwhile trade-up from the old DVD. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix gives it all for a mostly dialogue-heavy film; no complaints there.

In bonus features, we get a new and thorough commentary by director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi,executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila.

Edward Norton's screen test is one of the fascinating tidbits in the fleet and informative making-of featurette "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict" (17:58, HD). Norton, Linney, Lucchesi, Koch, Biderman, and editor David Rosenbloom sit for new interviews.

"Primal Fear: Star Witness" (17:56, HD) focuses on the laborious search for Stampler and the discovery of Norton. Participants include Hoblit, Aquila, Norton, Lucchesi, and Koch.

"Psychology of Guilt" (13:35, HD) focuses on whether or not dissociative identity disorders even exist, and their use as a defense. Justice Roger W. Boren, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, M.D., and forensic psychologist Dan Sussman, Ph.D. submit testimony, and we even see a videotaped interview with DID-claimant Kenny Bianchi.

Lastly, we get the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (2:25, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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