Straight off the bat, if you are a serious film buff/cinephile/filmgoer/film aficionado (or any other suitable term for a lover of cinema) and you (as I do) seek individual performances of actors that are worthy of any Best Actor Oscar, watch this film now! Edward Norton is nothing short of incredible. His portrayal of Aaron Stampler (an innocent-looking, stuttering, small-country altar boy) is breathtaking. If anything, his performance proves that the judgements of Hollywood and the Academy (when selecting candidates and winners of the top awards) are ludicrous.
Being a fairly underachieving film at the time (and even now), Gregory Hoblit’s neo-noir crime thriller is proof that a person sometimes has to look beyond IMDB’s top 100 films to find a real gem. Before a brief synopsis, I will warn you that Richard Gere is in fact one of the main cast members in the film. However, don’t be put off; his part is flawless.
The film opens with a seemingly guilty Aaron Stampler (Norton) running away from what we have observed to be a brutal murder of a Catholic archbishop. Once caught and in custody, Martin Vail (Gere), a high-profile and hotshot defence lawyer, takes the case pro bono, in a selfish attempt to raise his public profile. As the story progresses, we start to learn a few things: the prosecution in the Stampler case is Martin Vail’s former lover, Janet Venable (Laura Linney); the Catholic archbishop had previously declined real estate investment on church land, resulting in the District Attorney (John Mahoney) losing millions of dollars and the archbishop receiving numerous death threats; and Aaron Stampler has apparent Multiple Personality Disorder, which resulted from sexual abuse in childhood, which, if Martin Vail can prove is the case for the judge and jury, will vindicate Stampler of the murder charge.
At this point, the story is beautifully set. Edward Norton delivers his seminal performance with real authority. Laura Linney is her usual superlative self, whilst invigorating the screen with unequivocal sexuality. John Mahoney (who we are used to seeing provide a timeless laughter track in Frasier) is unusually superb as the unrelenting yet straight-faced District Attorney. Richard Gere, with his annoyingly handsome looks, plays the celebrity-status-seeking lawyer with real conviction.
For fans of Edward Norton or just fans of the crime-thriller genre in general, you could do a lot worse than venturing out and buying Primal Fear. An extraordinary watch.