Magazine article Insight on the News

Primal Fear

Magazine article Insight on the News

Primal Fear

Article excerpt

Been to the movies lately? If you are habituated to the exercise, what follows will be ho-hum stuff. But infrequent worshippers at the silver screen may be puzzled at the intense criticism of Hollywood in recent years -- for making so many violent, sexually explicit, asocial films.

Most of the excoriation is deserved, although the flick moguls unctuously defend themselves by pointing to "family-oriented" movies -- animated fodder much of it, such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and the like. Even these, however, are not immune to reasonable criticism. The "star" of Pocahontas, for example, is drawn as a 17th-century sex symbol -- never mind the goofy history.

But here's a film of adult appeal that's going gangbusters at your local theater now. The critics think it's grand. Primal Fear is a splendid, or notorious, illustration of a good, awful movie. The paradox is central. Starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton (who offers a tremendous portrayal of evil), this film embodies the best and the worst of first-line productions.

The plot pivots around a hotshot Chicago lawyer who has left the district attorney's office and is reaping the status and material joys of courtroom success. Gere's character defends individuals who are no better than they should be and frequently worse. He mutters piously that anyone on trial deserves the best defense a lawyer can provide and that sometimes "bad things are done by good people."

The city's Roman Catholic cardinal is hideously murdered -- eyes gouged, genitals mutilated. A 19-year-old "altar boy" is arrested, covered with blood. Lawyer Gere rushes to defend the suspect, pro bono, to show his adversarial flash in a very high-profile case. Those who scribble about film in newspapers avoid revealing conclusions. But this movie is so scabrous that broaching the convention might do the public service of keeping a few folks at home.

The altar-boy suspect craftily peddles an abuse-excuse ploy and fakes a "dual personality" that fools everyone, including the lawyer and a terribly sincere psychiatrist (nice touch, that). We're not dealing with a vicious killer, the shrink solemnly contends, but with a sick boy -- the usual psychobabble. At the end, the killer trumps the system.

But maybe the prelate's murder isn't so vile after all: The cardinal turns out to have been a sexual scumbag. …

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