It’s been a while, all. Thanks for standing by. The Unappreciated crew had Mardi Gras and things got out of hand. That’s right, half of us are based out of New Orleans: a city highly lauded and still under-appreciated. You wanna know what the French Revolution was like? Come check out the R-Bar on Lunigras.
I wanted to come back to the blog strong, and that’s why we’re focusing on 1996’s Primal Fear. This film is a masterpiece and lodestone of mid-1990’s noir. Mid-1990’s noir? That’s right, it was a short-lived genre that was, un-fucking-fortunately, so badly badly eclipsed by blockbusters and psychological thrillers of the day, that it has gone pretty much unnoticed ever since. I first have to blame a lot of that oversight on the lasting influence of Brian Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Released in 1991, this worldwide hit blended psychology with action for the first time for an entirely new generation of moviegoers. While Silence influenced films and filmmakers in a lot of ways, I would argue that its lasting potent influence is in regards how villains were portrayed in the 1990’s. And that is this: all your villains need to be crazy. The crazy villain was so consistently used in the 1990’s that I almost don’t know where to start. From Speed to Blown Away to In the Line of Fire to Demolition Man, all these villains were unnecessarily crazy. However, briefly in mid-1990’s a few Hollywood noir-films queefed through. Why? Stay with me here: I think it was the OJ trail. After the shocking not-guilty verdict, I think for the first time in a long time America’s collective barometer for right, wrong, justice, and injustice was shaken up for a bit. In a postmodern sense, I think people questioned the real motives of those around them, particularly with regards to the court system. While this national unease didn’t last long, a few films were made during this fleeting feeling, and Primal Fear was one.
Primal Fear centers on characters getting things wrong by misjudging others and, ultimately, themselves. It’s an idea that seem maybe too thin to be effective, but when in capable hands, it leads to complex, rich payoffs. Speaking of queefs earlier, Richard Gere plays the main protagonist, a hotshot pay-for-play defendant’s lawyer whose main folly of misjudgment is the backbone of the entire story. It’s a folly rooted in hubris, mind you, and that’s important. Gere’s character, Martin Vail, is defending a young Edward Norton, a indigent alter boy accused of murdering the Cardinal of the Catholic Church of Chicago. Norton’s Aaron Stambler is a hick who stutters, looks pathetic, and claims he was innocent of brutally stabbing the Cardinal despite having been chased down by police with a mountain of evidence on his person (an OJ amount of evidence). The ying to Vail’s yang Laura Linney plays state prosecutor Ms. Janet Venable who also acutely tunes into how pathetic Aaron Stambler appears to be. In the course of the film’s evidentiary discovery, it turns out that Aaron and a few other alter boys were ordered by the murdered Cardinal to pull a train on a half-way house girl for a sex tape, giving the young Aaron an OJ-amount of motive to kill the Cardinal.
However, that description is the narrative of the trail as seen in court only. Meanwhile, at the jail where Stampler is being detained during trial, Vail and a psychologist (played masterfully by Frances McDormand) discover that Stambler has a split personality disorder and shares his body with a psychopathic killer named Roy who proudly admits to killing the Cardinal. Vail feels for Stampler and goes out on a limb to defend the boy as if he was sane and just a victim of a sad disorder born out of familial and sexual neglect. Vail successfully defends Stampler after putting his disorder on display by making Venable putting baby-Aaron in a corner, in a sense. The boy is cleared of all charges and is sent to an hospital where he rightly belongs to seek treatment, says the sentencing. None of this is true, however, as it is revealed in the last scene in the film where Stambler admits to Vail that it is he who is ultimately pulling a mind-train on Vail himself: there was no Aaron. The kid was Roy the whole time and just performed a weak character to get Vail to believe and defend him. The shock resonates with Vail and the audience for several reasons. Here’s why this film rules the 1990’s noir underworld:
Richard Gere’s arrogance – Gere’s power and arrogance draw from the fact that he is always right and he knows it. You get the immediate impression that Gere would easily defend someone guilty over someone he had doubts about. As a former state prosecutor himself, Vail admits several times throughout the movie that it is ultimately his innate ability to understand the underlying truth about people that places him almost above justice itself.
Francis McDormand – It is by and through the strength of her performance as a subject matter expert that lends credence to both Gere’s and -most importantly – the audiences assumptions about Stampler being an innocent diddled hick. She is what baits us to being wrong.
Edward Norton – this is the performance that broke the young man into Hollywood, and every bit of it was deserved. And I have to admit, there’s always something about saving the best for last. See this movie.
Brian – Contributor