Half courtroom drama and half psychological thriller, Primal Fear must have made for an exciting time at the movies 10+ years ago. Bloodthirsty attorneys lurk in every corner, and a baby-faced Edward Norton hosts quite a coming-out party. Hell, even Richard Gere, as Head Honcho bloodthirsty attorney Marty Vail, is palatable (though Laura Linney is irksome). But ultimate satisfaction boils down to enjoyment of the surprise ending, reminiscent of The Usual Suspects (which was filmed one year earlier). And unfortunately, Primal Fear hasn’t aged well; there are wrinkles and pockmarks all over its face. With M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense; Unbreakable; Signs) seemingly using cop-out twists at every turn (and he’s not the only one), it’s not enough anymore to flip a switch at a film’s finale, kick back, and watch the audience ooh and ahh. There needs to be substantial meat on the bones; something to grab on to once the novelty of the conclusion wears off. That’s not really present here. The ultimate resolution is unsatisfying: to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that it’s clear why the murderer did what (s)he did, but the motives are fairly mundane (if, er, understandable).
Director Gregory Hoblit , who hasn’t helmed much of note since this one, does a respectable job with the actors and screenplay here; Primal Fear isn’t dull, and the dialogue is always workmanlike, if rarely eloquent (though the courtroom scenes do tend to play like a dragged-out Law and Order episode). However, he fails to effectively flush out the film’s central relationship—Gere’ s emotional range isn’t great to begin with, and he’s reduced here to a series of agitated head shakes, agape mouths, and the occasional temper tantrum. The psychological elements are shoddily done, and Primal Fear‘s narrative structure—which portrays Aaron (Norton) as a secondary focal point who primarily reacts rather than act—leaves the heavy lifting to Marty. It doesn’t cut it, and as a result, we’re left pondering why we should care at all.