Court dramas/thrillers based on crime novels by authors such as John Grisham were extremely popular in the 1990s, and Gregory Hoblit’s thriller based on a crime novel by William Diehl is on the same track. It is one of the films in which lawyers have taken over the baton from police investigators and private detectives to solve crimes, and Martin Vail (Richard Gere), a rather vain and smug lawyer from Chicago, will become one of those by chance. He once worked for the state attorney’s office, but he became disillusioned with the general corruption, incompetence and lack of interest, so he went into the private sector. And the man is not doing badly at all. He is the most sought-after criminal lawyer in Chicago, and he enjoys the public’s attention, so it is not surprising that he will accept pro-bono the defense of a young man accused of murdering an archbishop.
Aaron Stampler (a young Edward Norton in one of his first roles earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) is a 19-year-old minister for whom all evidence points to a murderer. He was at the scene of the crime, he was running from the police, but he claims that he does not remember anything and that he did not brutally kill the archbishop. Even Martin is not convinced that the young man is innocent, but he adheres to the theory that everyone deserves the right to defend himself, especially since he feels sorry for the kid with a sad fate and apparently modest intellectual abilities. However, Martin will be equally intrigued by the political background of the whole case, and he will see this process partly as an opportunity to take revenge on the city’s powerful people, who, it seems, were very interested in the archbishop’s death.
And the story will begin to develop around political corruption at the high levels of Chicago, and Vail will begin to build a case in that direction, but arrogance and self-righteousness seem to blind him a little and make him unable to see what is happening under his nose. “Primal Fear” is one of those unexpected thrillers with a shocking twist. It is a film in which we have a handful of famous actors. From Laura Linney as Vail’s former lover and assistant who is now a deputy state attorney to Frances McDormand as a psychiatrist tasked with assessing the mental health of the accused minister. “Primal Fear” did very well at the box office, earning more than a hundred million dollars on a budget of 30, and this is definitely one of the best examples of successful and high-quality courtroom dramas from the nineties.