By Jacob Montgomery (Texas)
Lawyers get a lot of flak. Though some of that flak is well earned, so much hate seems to be directed at them, specifically towards criminal lawyers. However, as pointed out by Martin Vail in this very film, I believe that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. After all, the American justice system has to be fair to everyone in order to prevent a potential miscarriage of justice. As a result, everyone should be entitled to counsel. Though as pointed out by this film, that has negative consequences. That is a very mature theme that helps this film stand out above a simple black and white morality tale.
Primal Fear is the story of Martin Vail (Played by Richard Gere), who is a big shot attorney, and doesn’t take cases he feels he can’t win. However, his world is turned upside when he decides to defend an altar boy (played by Edward Norton in his big-screen debut) who is accused of murdering a beloved archbishop. What started as a simple case is not what it first appeared, and as each thread is revealed, the more disturbing the case becomes.
First off, I want to give this film credit for actually tackling a very different and difficult to pull off subject, the criminal lawyer who has guilty clients. Usually stories paint these kinds of lawyers as bad people, however this film does not. Vail is not the nicest person, and he does use questionable tactics throughout, but you really get a feeling that he’s doing what he thinks is right, and shockingly is easy to root for. He freely admits that he’s defended a known drug dealer, but he gave him the best legal defense possible, and won. Most movies would paint him as the antagonist for doing that, but not here. That’s an interesting and fresh take, and I was glad that they did that.
The performances are all good, but by far the one who stands out the most is Edward Norton as Aaron Stampler. He does a fantastic job with what his character is written to do, but unfortunately I can’t go into why without spoiling most of the film’s plot twists, so I’ll just say that Norton’s Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved.
The film does manage to elicit some strange new emotions from the audience. At the conclusion of the film, we’re asked to ponder about the situation, and how the trial ended up. Was justice served? Because of the complexities of the case, there are several viewpoints you can take, and none of them are necessarily right or wrong, it’s just interesting food for thought, and is some complex musings on the American court system.
Now, I know what those of you who have already seen the film are wondering what I think of the film’s outcome when it came to the trial. Yes, I know that the law does not work like that, which is done to prevent exactly what happens in this film from happening in real life. However, I really don’t see this as that much of a problem, because it enhances the film’s somewhat reassuring, but at the same time terrifying message, that America’s justice system is designed to prevent an innocent from being wrongfully convicted, not to prevent the guilty from being wrongfully exonerated. Still, that implausibility is a little bit distracting, and I wouldn’t argue that it might make the film too far-fetched, but I was able to swallow it, because of what results from it.
Aside from that distraction, and the fact that at times the film feels a little bit standard, there is a lot to like in Primal Fear. The acting is very strong, the story, while generic, is strong and exceptionally executed, and the film has a plethora of well executed plot twists, that will no doubt reward repeat viewings. Not the absolute strongest courtroom drama, but one of the more memorable and emotionally complex ones.