Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 130 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 14.99
Release Date: March 10, 2009
Review Date: February 22, 2009
Like all superlative courtroom thrillers, Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear has a central mystery at play and a number of twists and turns to spring on the audience before it gets to its conclusion. While this film may not have the galvanizing panache of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution or the intoxicating brashness of Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, it’s still a very good mystery, filled with surprises, and boasting a handful of truly superb performances.
Hotshot Chicago defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) decides to take on the case of simple, pitiable altar boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), accused of butchering beloved Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) to whom he professes his love and gratitude. The victim had been stabbed seventy-eight times with his hand lopped off and eyes gouged out in what appeared to be a frenzy of bloody ritual murder. Aaron’s story is that there was another person in the room, but his tendency toward blackouts allowed the real killer to smear blood on Aaron who was returning a book at the time of the murder. Prosecuting the stuttering, confused West Virginia farm boy is one time colleague and lover of Vail’s Janet Venable (Laura Linney). So with two former sweethearts facing off against each other in court, the sparks fly amid a series of startling revelations which takes the case in an entirely new direction.
Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman have fashioned the screenplay from the novel by William Diehl, and the central tenant of the book remains intact in the film. They err, unfortunately, in sidelining some of the film with another case Vail is working on involving organized crime which allows for some fancy showboating in the courtroom for Richard Gere but which extends the film by a good ten or fifteen minutes to no useful purpose. The central mystery, solving the enigmatic murder of the archbishop, is an excellent one, and first timers to the film are likely to be jumping all around the various suspects while trying to pin down the guilty party. Emmy-winning director Gregory Hoblit does his part in staging some of the film’s big reveals simply and well, staying out of the way of the actors who are giving some of their best-ever performances. He does indulge in an occasional bit of showing off himself, however, with overhead, upside down shots which seem a little much.
Richard Gere was genius casting as the egotistical Vail, part brilliant attorney and part slick huckster, bragging that he’s not concerned with real guilt or innocence but only in getting his client off. Laurey Linney is every bit his equal in court keeping a poker face when things are going against her and suppressing a sly smile when she scores point after point against the befuddled defendant. This was Edward Norton’s first film role, and he announces his gifts as a great actor almost immediately in a truly wonderful performance which earned him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination his first time out. Among the other excellent character actors delivering outstanding work are John Mahoney as the somewhat pompous district attorney, Frances McDormand as a neural psychologist who first discovers a key to the case, Alfre Woodard as the trial’s no-nonsense judge, and Andre Braugher as Gere’s investigator.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 for this DVD release and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is very clean and free from digital artifacts offering excellent sharpness, good black levels, and very nice fine object detail. Flesh tones sometimes vary a bit and often lean on the pale side but color resolution is otherwise excellent, and the grain structure is solid. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track makes above average use of its soundfield with the James Newton Howard music mostly going to the front channels and a nice variation of ambient noises (helicopters, sirens) being channeled to the rears or panned throughout the available channels. There’s some nice bass in the LFE channel, but it’s not overdone.
A roundtable audio commentary is contributed by director Gregory Hoblit, producers Gary Lucchesi and Hawk Koch, writer Ann Biderman, and casting director Deb Aquila. With this many people present, one might think there would be nonstop talking, but that’s not the case. The participants often get caught up in the film and forget to talk though the pauses don’t often go on too long. It is a start and stop affair, however, even though their admiration for the film is evident in their every word.
“Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” is an 18-minute featurette on the making of the movie with actors Edward Norton and Laura Linney and the same production team as in the commentary talking about their experiences in making the film, all expressing great admiration for Richard Gere (who is not present in any of the bonus features). They also discuss the deleted subplot which was felt to give too much of the game away and the improvised ending which is in the final movie. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
“Primal Fear: Star Witness” is a pretty interesting 18-minute anamorphic widescreen interview with Edward Norton, casting agent Deborah Aquila, director Gregory Hoblit, and others discussing the search for an actor to play Aaron after Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role. Norton discusses the lengthy audition process he went through on both coasts to land the part, and included is some of his screen test footage which garnered him the role.
“Psychology of Guilt” spends 13 ½ minutes with two psychologists discussing the use and success (or lack thereof) of the insanity plea being used in murder cases. A couple of famous cases which used this defense (Hinkley, Bianchi) are discussed in this featurette.
The film’s theatrical trailer is delivered in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 ½ minutes.
The disc contains previews of Eagle Eye and The Godfather trilogy.
Primal Fear is an above average courtroom mystery featuring wonderful performances and a compelling, twisty story. This new “Hard Evidence Edition” features an excellent encoding of the film and some interesting new featurettes to go along with it. Recommended!