Psychologists once ran an experiment where they told blindfolded test subjects that they were about to get a drink of milk - and then they gave them a sip of orange juice instead. Every single person had the same reaction: they all swore that the "milk" was spoiled even though there was nothing wrong with it. That was because of a psychological effect called "priming", which says that pre-event expectations always affect how humans interpret any given experience. If you expect something sweet and you get something acidic instead - well, then it will taste wrong, even if it is actually fine.
Now, I've watched a lot of legal dramas over the years, and they tend to fall into two basic camps. On the one hand you have more realistic dramas that are trying to make serious points about the nature of justice, and on the other hand you have trashy thrillers where everything builds to a big courtroom circus scene where a main character finally cracks and confesses to committing the central crime. I enjoy both types of films - but I enjoy them separately, because they are distinctly different flavors. Whenever I'm promised one but get the other I always end up feeling like I've been served a spoiled drink.
Primal Fear is a legal drama from the mid-90s that establishes early on that it wants to be taken seriously. And I do mean early- before the opening credit sequence has faded out Richard Gere's hotshot lawyer character Martin Vail tips the movie's hand with a dramatic speech. As soon as Vail said "If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you wanna get fucked, go to court" I immediately knew that he was a man of lapsed faith, and that before the movie was over he was going to have a crisis of conscience - a classic serious drama set-up.
The next few scenes cemented that expectation, as they quietly depict Vail going about his important lawyerly business with the sort of pride that always comes before a fall. The sincere tone is briefly interrupted by a scene where an off camera figure stabs a Catholic Bishop to death in a truly gratuitous fashion, but as soon as the bloodletting ends the earnestness returns. Before the Bishop's body is even cold the police have apprehended a man named Aaron Stampler who was seen leaving the scene of the crime in blood soaked clothes and shortly after that Vail shows up at the police station to offer the dimwitted suspect his services. As soon as Stampler accepts his offer, Vail proceeds to build his defense logically and coolly. He hires investigators to explore Stampler's past. He has his assistants dig into Stampler's relationship to the Bishop. He searches for any sort of smoking gun that would get his client off even though he is the only man anyone can place at the scene of the crime.
So far so good. Primal Fear's first act is too austere to be great, but it is competent enough; all of the film's problems with glacial pacing could easily be redeemed by an appropriately epic crescendo. Unfortunately, as the movie moved into its second and third act I started getting more and more worried that it was about to lose its goddamned mind.
You see, when Stampler was first arrested he told Vail that he occasionally "blacked out" when he was in high pressure situations. Yes, he had been at the Bishop's house that day but he had no memory of what had happened. The ever-opportunistic Vail interpreted that confession the way he wanted to interpret it: since he wanted to believe that Stampler was innocent, he saw that as proof that the very guilty looking Stampler could in fact be innocent. Now it was possible that there could have been a third person in the Bishop's house who could have committed the murder - a third party that Stampler wouldn't remember because he had gone into an amnesiac state the instant that the Bishop's blood started spilling onto the carpet. But before Vail could fly that theory in court, he was going to need to get proof that Stampler wasn't lying about the black-outs, and thus he hired a psychologist to test Stampler's sanity.
The more time Primal Fear spends probing Stampler's psyche the sillier it gets. It soon becomes clear that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder, and that while "Aaron" is innocent of the crime his alter-ego "Roy" isn't. In the right movie I wouldn't object to a plot twist this preposterous - yes, multiple personality disorder is a cheesy device to work into a murder mystery, but I can forgive a cheesy device in a cheesy movie. But Primal Fear is not a cheesefest. Well, actually, I should say that it wasn't a cheesefest at first - as soon as the script commits to Stampler's insanity the whole movie commits to being asinine.
The film's back half backslides into unbelievably pulpy nonsense. For example, at one point Vail illegally steals a sex tape from the Bishop's house and then tricks the prosecuting attorney into showing this inadmissible evidence to the jury. Every new legal maneuver feels less plausible than the last, and each of them feels like a bait and switch given the movie's staid beginnings. Even worse, it wasn't even a full bait and switch because the movie still wants to end on a serious note; the final image is of Vail standing by himself in an empty courtroom looking forlorn. Such an ending would be appropriate if this was The Verdict, but this isn't the Verdict, it is the "Multiple Personality Sex Murder Show."
Orange Juice is great. Milk is great. There are even times when they compliment each other well - as the ads like to remind us, the combination of a little juice and a bowl of cereal can make for a well-balanced breakfast. But that doesn't mean that you can mix the two tastes together in the same glass and get something drinkable. Primal Fear tried to give its audience a concoction that was part smooth and part acidic and it just doesn't work. And this taste failure cannot be blamed on some psychological quirk that tricked us into thinking that a perfectly fine drink was rancid. No, this was because all of Primal Fear's dumb psychological twists actually spoiled it's flavor.
Winner: The Cat