What does justice truly mean in America? Is the point of our criminal justice system retribution, rehabilitation, or something else entirely? What matters more, ensuring that the innocent are never convicted of a crime or pursuing the guilty by any means necessary? Tragically, far too much of the American populace and those in charge of dishing out the sentences for criminal actions tend to work in the hellfire and brimstone vengeance school of thought and if a couple of innocent people get trampled along the way, well that’s the price to pay to stop evil. Even most movies paint law and order in a starkly black and white perspective. You are either innocent or guilty and you should either face the full weight of the law or absolutely nothing. Most cinema fails to capture the shades of gray that define such antiquated subjects as guilt and innocence. And that’s without getting into cinema’s complete lack of understanding of the way actual courtrooms work which cause nearly every pre-law and law school student to devolve into massive fits of outrage at the screenwriter’s poor research skills. Perhaps that’s why Primal Fear was so interesting. It wasn’t as realistic a crime procedural as Zodiac, but it asked some tough questions about what we truly stand for in our nation’s legal system. It’s a shame the film’s (admittedly brilliantly pulled off) twist ending subverted nearly every question the film answered from beginning to end.

Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is the most successful and famous criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Interested in both the wealth and notoriety of taking on high-visibility criminal cases, Vail also legitimately cares that his clients are afforded the full protection of the Constitution. When a nineteen year old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Fight Club‘s Edward Norton), is caught running from the scene of the murder of an archbishop covered in blood, his seemingly open-shut case has Aaron on the fast track to death row. Believing that the challenge of at least keeping Aaron off death row will help garner him more fame, Vail decides to take on Aaron’s case pro bono despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Vail finds himself up against his ex-girlfriend (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) as the prosecuting attorney and a vindictive Attorney General (Frasier‘s John Mahoney) as Vail fights to ensure that Aaron gets a just trial. Much of the film relies on a series of perfectly implemented reveals so I’ll refrain from ruining any of the other pieces in this giant legal puzzle.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of Richard Gere before. He was just another Hollywood pretty boy, but he did a great job in this movie (though not as great as Ed Norton). Martin Vail is all about being a rakish charmer, and Richard Gere just oozes charisma in the role. And when it comes time to be angry or torn or confused, he nails all of those emotions as well. However, this was Ed Norton’s film. I feel like I can’t get into too much of what made his performance so phenomenal without ruining the film, but let’s just say that as excellent as he is at the beginning of the film, if you’re concerned that his performance is going to be a little one note, you’re wrong. I won’t say this is the best performance of Ed Norton’s career (that goes to his part in American History X), but he was most certainly better than Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. Ed Norton is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation, and as far as breakthrough roles go, it’s pretty hard to top this one.

I’m not generally a fan of courtroom dramas. As someone who was actually a student of the law for a while, I know how awful they are, and while even Primal Fear had me tearing my hair out at moments that would have never been allowed to happen in a real courtroom, it still managed to ask enough interesting questions about the very nature of our legal system that I had to forgive its technical flaws. This is one of those films that relies so heavily on twists (albeit twists that don’t feel cheap when you actually think about them because they’re all foreshadowed well enough) that it’s difficult to discuss some of the themes of the film without ruining things. Yet, the notion of guilt and innocence, sanity and insanity, and justice versus a railroaded trial all form the core of this film, and for the most part, the film offers up an intriguing take on these issues that gibed with my political belief system. While I think the ending still cheapened the rest of the film (though its twist was brilliantly pulled off as I’ve said), part of me could also make a case for how it forces you to face the realities of the liberal legal idealism that the movie was wanting you to espouse.

I was shocked by how engrossed I found this film despite not being the typical crime thriller fan. That statement alone serves as the best recommendation I can give to this film. Even for non-thriller/non-crime procedural fans, Primal Fear delivers a cerebral and white-knuckle ride into the heart of our justice system and the hearts and minds of the people at the core of this system. Some elements of the plot are a little contrived/predictable (and some subplots were more left-field than others), but with a film shouldered on the backs of the great performances of Richard Gere and Edward Norton, Primal Fear is easy to recommend even to people who aren’t fans of the genre. It may not be the most unconventional tale ever told (though it has its share of dark and disturbing moments that managed to shock me in their depravity), but it’s a solidly constructed film that I can recommend to virtually all of my readers. I still find myself torn about its ending, but I’m sure after some thought over the next couple of days, I’ll be able to come down one way or the other on whether it hurt or helped the overall film.

Final Score: B+