The only really primal fear in "Primal Fear" is Richard Gere's for the young man who will ultimately replace him, Edward Norton. It's interesting to watch an old actor try to hold his ground against the inevitable course of hormones, talent and time: Gere uses every trick in the book, every twitch his beautiful face ever learned, every flash, sparkle, glimmer, smolder, eyebrow lift, smile, smirk or grimace. He fights valiantly.
But he is doomed: Norton eats him alive and when the film is over, you're thinking, "Who was that kid?"
The terrain for this battle royale between yesterday and tomorrow is a rather slick, conventional commercial thriller about a callow but ambitious lawyer (Gere) defending a seemingly pitiful but guilty drifter turned altar boy (Norton) on a charge of murder of a revered Catholic cleric. Death came for the archbishop, the cops came for Norton and Gere came for the good career move.
At first, it's totally Gere's movie. Insufferably handsome and vain beyond human measure, Gere's Martin Vail fills the screen like Narcissus on a field trip from Ancient Greece. He revels in the attention, he radiates smugness like an old radiator billowing heat through the room, he preens and shucks and gandydances for the camera, blowing everyone else out of the movie.
When the boy is apprehended, it seems like one more trip to glory for Gere. Norton's Aaron Sampler is a convention: He's almost inarticulate, a drifting Southerner, unrooted and unfocused and, of course, very stupid. His soft, angelic face seems not even in focus; it's a smear of fuzz on the lens. Gere takes one look at him, thinks "Plead insanity," and sets about to milk the case for maximum pathos with a hope of keeping the boy, somehow, off death row, a triumph that would have professional meaning for him and is completely unconnected to any notion of justice.
The script, again quite conventional, cycles in thriller tropes, all familiar. Backstory: Vail was once the fair-haired boy of the prosecutor's office, is still bitter about his dismissal and can't wait to use the trial to get at the fat cats (John Mahoney, for one) who still run the place. More backstory: His adversary in the case is Janet Venable (Laura Linney, very good), who was once his assistant and lover.
Wrinkles: The saintly archbishop was perhaps not so saintly after all. A disturbing videotape emerges. A second kid is spotted. A gangster (Steven Bauer), who seemed connected to a land and real estate scandal that might have involved the archdiocese, is found dead. A psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) keeps picking at the drifter, seemingly making little progress. It all seems so normal.
But the movie is secretly being taken over by Norton, which is really the movie's twist, even as I avoid revealing the more mechanistic coup de grace in the last seconds. What we're seeing is a contest in acting styles. Gere is an externalist, a "big" performer who immediately draws attention to himself. Stirring, but conventional. Norton, like a few others (John Turturro comes immediately to mind) has that rarest of qualities: He, alone among the extremely professional performers on the screen, seems not to be acting at all. Rather, he has simply become: He is, somehow and magically.
Put another way, we know everything we need to know about everyone in the film in the first second that we see them. We only think that of Norton's Aaron, but the process of the movie isn't so much penetrating a plot as a mind, and Norton takes us deeper and deeper through brilliantly deployed dead ends and subterfuges until he alone is controlling the movie. It's a terrific piece of work.
Alas, it's sad to report that "Homicide's" great Andre Braugher appears as Vail's investigator, with hair no less. The part, while well enough performed, is so far from the demonic splendor and concentrated fury of his Frank Pembleton that it feels a little indecent. Can't somebody out there write a terrific script for Braugher and Norton. Let tomorrow begin now, please! I'm tired of waiting.
Starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Released by Paramount
Rated R (violence, profanity, sexual material)
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 4/03/96
HD Show Down; Movie review: A conventional thriller becomes the battle ground for a fight between acting styles. Richard Gere gets trounced by newcomer Edward Norton.