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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Newcomer Edward Norton propels 'Primal Fear'

By Richard von Busack

The brutal stabbing murder of the wealthy and powerful Archbishop of Chicago kicks off the new courtroom thriller Primal Fear. Fleeing the scene, covered with gore, is the only likely suspect, Aaron Stampler (superb newcomer Edward Norton), an ex-resident of the archbishop's charity home for pale young boys, "Savior House" (only the very, very faithful Catholic will not suspect the obvious liaison).

Into what promises to be a very aromatic murder trial comes famed defense lawyer Martin Vail (played with appropriately beady eyes by Richard Gere); leading the prosecution is Janet Venable (Laura Linney), embittered veteran of Vail's charms--in one of Primal Fear's sharper lines, Venable describes their relationship as a six-month-long one-night stand.

You don't watch a movie like this, you sink into it like a warm bath. Primal Fear is a reminder of the golden days of the Hollywood studios, when professional, workmanlike B-picture dramas like this came out once every six weeks or so. Then, as now, you have the characters (all of a piece); jurisprudence details (improbable, sometimes highly improbable, but you'll buy it); plot (you're ahead of it, but seeing it turn out as you expected provides its own satisfactions, like watching an outfielder catching a pop fly).

The fine cast proves that even the dullest director has an enormous range of actors these days with which to relay shades of human weakness and hidden strengths. Greg Hoblit isn't dull; he's square in the middle between the best and the worst directors. He spices the picture up with some Chicago aerial shots (maybe the best way to see Chicago is from 400 feet up), but he also tips off the viewer one too many times to take Primal Fear seriously as a thriller.

There's nothing obvious, however, about the nuances brought to bear by actors like Alfre Woodward as a understandably miffed judge and Frances (Fargo) McDormand, subtle as subtlety itself as the psychiatrist who first understands just what kind of man the defendant is. Terry O'Quinn, from the Stepfather movies, doesn't have much dialogue, but he does get in some nasty glowering as a DA's hatchet man.

The film is also distinguished by sturdy parallel structuring between the public and private life of the late archbishop, and by Gere's own veiled (Vailed) persona. Vail's one twist as a character is the contrast between his self-satisfied professional exterior and his inner feelings (brought out during a well-handled drunk scene) that his real thrill in life is helping serve the cause of justice. And in the dock, the defendant Aaron is something of a divided soul himself.

Such surprise as Primal Fear has to offer is all contained in Norton's career-making performance, and to discuss it much would kill the surprise. Norton might become a star, but he's certainly going to be something better: a cult figure, beloved by a core audience when a lot of today's stars are forgotten.

Primal Fear (R; 126 min.), directed by Gregory Hoblit, written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, based on the novel by William Diehl, photographed by Michael Chapman and starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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