Primal Fear

Year: 1996
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Maloney, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodward
Fantastic movie, shocking title. It looked like another one of those generic two-word midday movie-style courtroom thrillers (all called a combination of 'analysis', 'basic', 'proposal', 'final', 'indecent' etc).

And with the added disincentive of Richard Gere's presence, it hadn't even occurred to me to watch it until I heard it was Edward Norton's breakout role.

It turned out to be as exciting a courtroom drama can be with some excellent performances; Frances McDormand is great but it's Norton who'll blow you away as the murder suspect.

A local cardinal is murdered and a stuttering teenage altar boy who suffers blackouts is the held for the crime. Enter slick lawyer and glorified ambulance chaser Vail (Gere) who'll do anything for a headline to take the case.

After psychiatric evaluations, trailing clues and talking to the terrified kid in prison, there's a sudden revelation; under stress, he displays what appears to be a multiple personality disorder - the alter ego being the killer.

But that's not all. The final twist right at the end isn't the most unpredictable in movie history, but the performances just make it so powerful. It's also not the great storytelling that make it effective, but the time has spent investing in the characters. Vail's relationship with his opposing prosecutor (Linney) gives the story backbone as well as painting the complicated and well devised character that he is. And for the most part, his acting even lives up to it well - a rare turn for him.

But the one who runs out of the theatre with the movie safely tucked under his arm is Edward Norton, who was nominated for an Oscar. He's in charge of every scene as the bumbling, awkward teen and the chilling redneck, snapping from one to the other in a heartbeat.

After the shock, Vail walks out of the prison right at the end, and you feel as lost as he is, despite his postulating that he had everything worked out - a posture you believe the whole way through. It's the perfect spot to end of the movie, and it (and the characters) will stay with you for a long time after - certainly a lot longer than the corny drama-thriller title suggests.

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