At times extraordinary and at others very ordinary, "Primal Fear" is an uneven thriller that aims to be more than just a slick whodunit, but it falters every time it seems poised to rise to the next level.
Richard Gere heads a superb cast as Martin Vail, a headline-grabbing, amoral criminal defense attorney. When a street kid named Aaron (newcomer Edward Norton) is accused of butchering a Chicago Roman Catholic bishop who ran a special program for runaways, Vail bullies his way into the case.
State's Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) makes sure the case is given to hotshot prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), who was once Vail's assistant during his prosecutor days - and his former lover.
Vail and his investigator, Tommy Goodman (Andre Braugher of TV's "Homicide"), have to explain away overwhelming evidence, and all they have is Aaron's lame story that "someone else was in the room." Despite the implausibility of Aaron's story, his earnest, halting manner makes Vail think there may be more to the story.
Vail brings in a psychologist (Frances McDormand) to examine Aaron, and finds that both Aaron and the cops may be half right. The stage is set for political maneuvering and courtroom fireworks on a grand scale.
Gere is adequate as a smug, emotionally hollow yuppie lawyer (it's hardly a stretch), and Linney is very strong as his legal - and emotional - foil. But the supporting performances register most strongly.
Norton is nothing short of sensational as Aaron. The full range of his performance cannot be described without giving away a key plot development, but let's just say that his chilling portrayal is an early Oscar contender.
Braugher is one of our most underrated actors, and just as he does on TV's "Homicide," he steals every scene he's in. McDormand as the shrink, Alfre Woodard as the judge, Steven Bauer as one of Vail's underworld clients and Joe Spano as a police captain also have some vivid moments.
Mahoney's character is right out of central casting, however, and if you can't guess what the bishop's seamy secret is, you haven't consulted your politically correct cliche handbook lately. This is a plot device on which we should probably declare a moratorium.
"Primal Fear" is quite good at the "what" aspects of the plot, it's the "why" we have trouble with. This is true from the very beginning. The cops have Aaron red-handed for a heinous crime, and Vail takes the case supposedly for the publicity, though a reporter from a major magazine is following him around already for a cover story. And the final twist reveals the "who" so late that there is no time for motivation.
You might think that screenwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman are just having trouble boiling down the book to a movie of slightly more than two hours, but William Diehl's novel had the same problems.
The film makers also don't have the confidence in their material to let it speak for itself. They do everything to beat the irony to death but flash "ironic scene" across the bottom in a yellow subtitle. Vail gives his speech about not discovering the truth, but creating it, not once but at least four times - and his attitude severely undercuts the impact of the climax.
"Primal Fear" is consistently entertaining, very slickly made, and at times very smart. You just can't help feeling it should have been so much more.