PRIMAL FEAR—slick, arrogant defense attorney ‘Martin Vail’ (Richard Gere) gives former lover ‘Janet Venable’ (Laura Linney), now prosecuting Vail’s client, “A small piece of advice, don’t use the word “heinous” in a courtroom. Half the jury won’t know what you’re talking about.” Now that nearly three dumb-down decades have whipped by since this ace 1996 thriller registered with crowds and critics. we’d say “half” is being generous. Let’s assume you’re in the fraction that does know heinous signifies something as hateful, abominable, shockingly evil. Certainly the murder Vail’s defendant ‘Aaron Stampler’ (Edward Norton) is nabbed for fits the bill. Rude awakenings await all concerned.
Graduating from producing & directing TV series like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, for his debut feature film Gregory Hoblit directed a sterling cast in a script that Ann Biderman and Steve Shagan adapted from William Diehl’s novel. The team turned Diehl’s 432-pages into 130 minutes of gripping, unapologetically frank Big City drama; taut, smart and surprising, galvanized by a superb cast, abetted by fine cinematography from Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull).
Gere readily handles the cocksure lawyer and doesn’t showboat his stardom at the expense of his castmates. Still relatively unknown at the time, Linney, 31, makes a formidable opponent and telling work comes from Andre Braugher, Frances McDormand (her breakout year, scoring Fargo and Lone Star), John Mahoney and Alfre Woodward.
But the lions share of glory goes to Norton, 27 in his feature debut as the defendant: picked over more than 2,000 actors who auditioned for the part, his mesmerizing turn knocked back an Oscar nomination as Supporting Actor and his career was off on a run.
Put together for $30,000,000, the US gross of $56,116,000 placed 26th in ’96, and another $46,500,000 was earned internationally.
In addition to those above the cast features Maura Tierney, Jon Ceda, Steven Bauer, Terry O’Quinn, Joe Spano, Reg Rogers, Tony Plana and Stanley Anderson.