Primal Fear is notable for many reasons including its intriguing plot twist and wonderful casting. It’s the debut of the brilliant Edward Norton. And, it’s a fun watch (currently airing on Starz) because so many members of the cast have current projects going, from screenwriter Ann Biderman (Ray Donovan, Southland, Public Enemies) to Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge) to Maura Tierney (The Affair).
Primal Fear casts Richard Gere as the hot shot defense attorney and media hungry Martin Vail. He seeks out Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) a troubled, slow-witted altar boy who has been charged with the vicious murder (78 stab wounds in all) of the Chicago Archbishop. Prosecuting Aaron will be Vail’s former girlfriend, ADA Janet Venable (Laura Linney).
“Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people’s lives?” Martin Vail drunkenly poses this question to a reporter.
People in power (defense attorneys, prosecutors, police, politicians, or archbishops) can gamble with people’s lives. The evidence against Aaron Stampler is particularly damning – he had means, motive and opportunity – not to mention the archbishop’s blood all over him. However as Martin Vail and his team begin to investigate, there were plenty of people would benefit from the death of the archbishop – investors in the archbishop’s foundation, envious developers hoping to snatch up real estate the poor areas of town current housing the church’s human services charities, and, as it turns out, sexual abuse victims from the past.
Gere is at his best here – he would go on to star in Red Corner, The Jackal and Runaway Bride in the next two years – but he shines as Martin Vail, arrogant, brilliant, frequently swerving into less than legal territory.
Roger Ebert points out how beautifully orchestrated one of the opening scenes is in setting up Vail’s stature in the Cook County power hierarchy:
As the movie opens, Martin Vail is seen moving smoothly through the centers of power in Chicago. He attends a benefit. He knows everybody’s name. They behave toward him in a way that signifies his importance.
While the bulk of the film takes place in the confines of the courtroom, the opening credits are beautiful and there are some wonderful aerial shots of Chicago as Martin drives to deliver a settlement offer to client Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer) and again when the police are chasing Aaron moments after the Archbishop’s murder.
If you’ve never seen Primal Fear, make a point to. And, if you have seen it, give it another view to see how well it stands the test of time.
Characters and cast of Primal Fear include:
Aaron – Edward Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Bourne Legacy, 25th Hour, Red Dragon, Stone, Pride and Glory, The Incredible Hulk, The Painted Veil, The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom, Down In the Valley, Kingdom of Heaven, The Italian Job, Death to Smoochy, The Score, Fight Club, American History X, Everyone Says I Love You)
Martin Vail – Richard Gere (Pretty Woman, Arbitrage, Runaway Bride, The Jackal, Red Corner, Internal Affairs, Days of Heaven)
Jane Venable – Laura Linney (The Truman Show, Mystic River, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Savages, John Adams, Breach, Absolute Power)
Shaughnessy – John Mahoney (Frasier, In Treatment, The Hudsucker Proxy, In the Line of Fire)
Judge Shoat – Alfre Woodard (K-PAX, Dinosaur, Star Trek: First Contact, Copper, 12 Years a Slave, True Blood, Annabelle)
Molly – Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge, Fargo, Mississippi Burning, Almost Famous, Burn After Reading, Moonrise Kingdom, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple)
Bud Yancy – Terry O’Quinn (Lost, The X Files, The West Wing, Ghosts of Mississippi, Tombstone, The Rocketeer)
Tommy Goodman – Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street, Salt, House M.D., Gideon’s Crossing)
Joey Pinero – Steven Bauer (Scarface, Raising Cain, Sword of Gideon, Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad)
Abel Stenner – Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues, Apollo 13, Fracture, Hollywoodland, NYPD Blue, Murder One, NCIS)
Naomi Chance – Maura Tierney (The Affair, ER, Liar Liar, NewsRadio, Insomnia, The Good Wife, Semi-Pro, Primary Colors, Instinct)
Jack Connerman – Reg Rogers (The Knick, The Americans, Runaway Bride, Attila, Jump)
Alex – Jon Seda (Chicago Fire, Homicide: Life on the Street, Twelve Monkeys, Oz)