There’s nothing quite like a mid-budget, mid-90s thriller, especially when it’s based on a potboiler novel – and Primal Fear is one of the best. Adapted from William Diehl’s 1993 novel of the same name, Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman’s screenplay follows attorney Marty Vail (Richard Gere), as he prepares for his most challenging case – defending Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), charged with killing a prominent Chicago Archbishop. Marty examines Aaron with the help of forensic psychologist Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), while he has a formidable opponent in prosecutor and former lover Janet Venable (Laura Linney), who has been instructed to win at all costs by state’s attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney).
That’s a pretty impressive array of actors, especially with Alfre Woodard, Maura Tierney and Andre Braugher thrown into the mix, and makes for some terrific scenecraft. The film is full of amazing two-handers, both in and out of the courtroom, as director Gregory Hoblit rotates his ensemble cast to include about every possible pairing. As with so many courtroom dramas from this era, those more intimate encounters create a very particular kind of brooding hush. Primal Fear is quietly attuned to the city, and listens deeply to the city, exuding a spatial prescience and sentience that’s encapsulated in the eerie piano refrains that always fade away to a place we can’t yet discern. This produces an incredible sense of emergence, of threatening but amorphous possibilities that coalesce round Norton’s richly textured debut.
This attention to place quickly gives way to two discrete types of space that together contour the trial. The first type of space might be described as the residual public sphere of Chicago – the possibility of a genuine public space where people can live, mingle and flourish. The second involves the civic institutions – especially the political and religious institutions – that are supposed to keep this public sphere humming. The crime scene takes place at the cusp between these two spaces, as do all the key people involved with the case – the victim, the key suspect, the defence attorney and the state’s attorney’s office. By enlivening this threshold between public space and civic institutions, the crime and subsequent trial evoke a profound reconfiguration in urban life, space and capital in the face of a new corporate era.
During the opening scenes, Hoblit associates the public space of the city with a series of careening helicopter shots. In the first of these, we’re in the helicopter, tracking Marty’s car as it curves through a series of blighted neighbourhoods, and then passes under a rail line, before arriving at the bar that one of his less savoury clients owns and manages. Next time we see this helicopter, we’re on the ground, watching it arrive at the crime scene – the Archbishop’s lodgings. From there, the helicopter chases Aaron across the same train tracks that Marty drove under, before this aerial footage comes full circle, and we cut to Marty watching it casually in a bar. While the sheer scale of these aerial sequences evoke a residual public sphere, they mainly focus on wastelands of urban blight. In that sense, they capture the last vestiges of a public sphere, the haunted spaces where a public sphere once flourished.
These amorphous decaying spaces are pointedly contrasted with the bedroom where the Archbishop is murdered, which represents the heart of the institutional spaces that are meant to protect the city against precisely this decline in the public sphere. Yet we only ever experience the bedroom as a source of perverse violence, with a particular emphasis on the perversion. This reflects a broader shift in how directors represented crime scenes in the 90s – as portals to emergent and exotic forms of perverse pleasure, rather than as mere repositories of forensic information.This partly reflected the rise of the serial killer as a popular icon, and the growing public fascination with people who murdered merely for pleasure. But it also reflected a new fixation with policing desire, particularly sexual desire, in the wake of AIDS – a growing hysterial about the fate of the closet in American political life.
This all produced a new fascination with bedrooms as crime scenes – tableaux where investigating the crime meant performing an autopsy on the victim’s sex life as well. Primal Fear presents us with one of these crime scenes, packed with so much arcane detail that the crime seems to be part of some arcane sexual ritual. On the one hand, the décor is almost fetishistic in its precision – red chintz, soft carpets, trinkets on every surface. On the other hand, the crime has reduced the Archbishop’s body to a fetishistic object – coated in bloodstains, eyes removed, insignia carved into his chest without any immediate significance.
Between these two spaces, we have a pretty grim vision of the American city. While there is a residual public sphere, it’s almost suffocated by urban decay. Similarly, while there are public institutions, they seemed to have been colonised by a perverse pleasure principle. The crime itself occurs at the uncanny threshold between these two prospects. Hoblit visualises this threshold from the perspective of a passer-by, who sees the Archbishop’s body being flung against his curtains so roughly that they appear to be billowing from a wind blowing inside the apartment. The only additional information we get is a decontextualized shot of the Archbishop’s fingers being lopped off – and this simply serves to reiterate the rupture that occurs between the institutional space of his bedroom and the public sphere of the city.
Of course, there is one person who moves between those two spaces – the criminal himself. If Aaron actually committed the crime, then he represents the common thread between the Archbishop’s bedroom and the abandoned rail line where we first meet him, running for his life. Similarly, if Aaron committed the crime, then he can presumably be used as an object lesson for what has gone wrong with the city’s institutions and spaces. Yet Aaron (apparently) doesn’t know any more than the audience, since he (supposedly) blacked out for the entire duration of the crime. Like us, all he knows is that he was in the Archbishop’s apartment, that violence occurred, and that he then found himself, minutes later, running away from police.
The rest of the film follows Marty and Janet as they try to nail down what happened in this critical space between the city’s public institutions and public sphere. We see this spatial bind pre-empted by the paintings in Marty’s office. In one of them, a figure tries to break through the walls of a room, without realising that there are many other walls arranged in concentric patterns beyond it. Marty’s experience of the case is a bit like that – making small inroads into that critical patch of space only to discover new thresholds to what Aaron can deliver. In another shot, right behind Marty’s desk, we see a print of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day. Like Primal Fear, this iconic painting poises us right on the cusp between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, leaving us (and Marty) in a disorienting spatial dissonance.
To make things more complicated, all of the key players in the case are poised at the cusp between urban grime and gentrification. There’s a pointed contrast between Aaron’s boarding-house and the Archbishop’s bedroom, while Marty makes most of his money representing career criminals who live in the more destitute parts of the city. We soon find out that both the Archbishop and the state’s attorney were misusing investment funds that were meant to finance an urban renewal project – the South Bank Redevelopment Scheme. It’s not just Aaron, then, but this contested space between public and institutional life that’s on trial here, which is further reiterated in the more personal contested space between Marty and Janet. Linney is one of the best foils Gere ever got – her inherent scepticism works brilliantly to offset his serenity, the way he can usually command space with a single gesture.
In other words, the crime is like a spatial schism, an urban aporia, that both attorneys try to adjudicate over the course of the film. To do that, they have to envisage a new space, or a non-space, that feels like an inchoate version of the more corporatised and privatised city centres that we know today. They’re trying to capture a spatial dissonance, a two-faced or Janus-like space, on the cusp of an era where an older kind of public sphere was starting to vanish from American cities. This two-faced quality is (literally) embedded in the crime scene too – the insignia carved onto the Archbishop’s chest takes Janet and her team to his personal library, to a copy of The Scarlet Letter, and finally to the page with Hawthorne’s famous quote: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and one face to the multitude, without getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” This phrase also forms the movie’s tag line: “Sooner or later, a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real.”
Janet and Marty also have urgent personal reasons for mediating these two spatial schemes, and resolving this spatial dissonance. Since Janet works for the state’s attorney’s, the very existence of the state is in jeopardy until she closes out the case. Marty, however, has a more unusual and personal investment in the case. Midway through the film, he admits that he defends criminals because he wants money and fame – but he also says he wants something more. To some extent, this “something more” is expiation for “something” he did when he worked with Janet at the state’s attorney’s office. We never find out what happened, but we can infer that Marty helped to put an innocent party away, prompting him to spend the rest of his career defending people, even if he suspects that they might be guilty. This is an important part of his character, but it doesn’t fully explain the “more” he gets from defence.
Instead, as the film proceeds, we realise that Marty wants poise. Money and fame are good, but poise is the ultimate commodity. This produces a kind of spiritual sequel to Pretty Woman, as Marty tries to remake Aaron, the courtroom and the city over in his own image. In his very first meeting with Aaron, he sizes him up for a new suit, recalling the way he dresses Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. He’s also on the front cover of the latest issue of “City” magazine – he’s literally the face of the city – which crops up regularly as the case unfolds and evolves.
Marty has a compulsion to mediate himself through the city, and to mediate the city through his own supreme and serene sense of poise. While he craves media attention, he aspires to a level of poise that becomes a form of mediation in itself – that allows him to invoke and shape the city without having to resort to conventional media outlets. In modern parlance, he’s an influencer, and he uses the courtroom as his social media space, treating each case as a miniature city that allows him to gather and galvanise all the sightlines of Chicago in one go.
This would already make Marty especially susceptible to Aaron’s case, which is an incitement to spatial mediation. Yet we learn that Marty takes particular pleasure in mediating the two types of space that are at stake, specifically, in Aaron’s case. For maximum poise, and maximum mediation, Marty regularly displaces the space between the protective institutions of the city and the urban blight they’ve failed to address. He tried to do this at the state’s attorney office and failed, so his job now involves moving between the state’s attorney and all the communities they routinely ignore. We see this in the opening scenes, when John agrees to a plea deal with one of Marty’s clients on the condition that he leave the city, and forfeit his riverside empire, so that it can be used as the site for future housing developments.
For all those reasons, there’s a profound synergy between Marty’s sensibility and Aaron’s situation. Before meeting Aaron, Marty thought that he had poised himself at, and mediated himself through, the spatial schism that both ruptures and defines the city. Yet this case makes him realise that his project is meaningless if he can’t chart that blank space between the Archbishop’s bedroom and the wasteland where Aaron regains consciousness. Marty describes this as the case that finally makes it possible to believe in a client, but it’s more that he can’t believe in himself if he doesn’t win, meaning he has to believe in Aaron at all costs.
Of course, the paradox is that Aaron himself can’t testify to this hinge in urban space. At first, that’s because he claims to have blacked out, meaning that his body was present, but his mind was absent. To get around this bind, Marty comes up with the theory of a “third person” who was in the room with Aaron and the Archbishop when the crime took place. Yet this theory of a third person quickly devolves back into the same spatial dislocation. While Aaron concedes that a third person might have been present, he can only describe them as a function of the space, as a “shadow.” Similarly, Hoblit resorts to redundant and obsessive framing devices when Marty is considering this theory, suggesting that it’s destined to fail. In one scene, we shift from a shot of Molly’s elbow framing Marty, to a shot of Marty framed by a window, to a new space where Marty is standing underneath a giant pointing finger. These hyper-framings make it clear that the third man theory is just another version of that first painting in Marty’s office – a way of deferring spatial thresholds, rather than resolving them.
It’s hard to know, then, how Marty and Molly can make a break in the case. Since Aaron can’t remember anything about the space between the bedroom and his capture, they have to wait until his memory returns – or wait for an explanation of his memory loss. This is a risky bet, but the emergent atmosphere of the film is so strong that it seems almost inevitable that something will float to the surface. So it does, in one of Molly’s interview sessions, when Aaron seems to demonstrate hallmarks of a split personality, momentarily lapsing into a more aggressive persona. All of a sudden, he loses his stutter and his cowering manner, and speaks directly and aggressively to Molly, before collapsing just as quickly in a swathe of exhaustion.
If Aaron does indeed have an “acute dissociative condition,” then it’s impossible for Marty to resolve the dissociative space at stake in the trial. However, it potentially means that he doesn’t have to map this space, since he can claim that Aaron isn’t fit to stand trial to begin with. Rather than using Aaron to resolve the schism between public and institutional space, Marty wonders whether he can get Aaron to embody this space so dramatically on the stand that the judge will consider him insane enough to call a mistrial. Instead of using Aaron to resolve the city’s schisms, Marty can use him to demonstrate the city’s schisms, and mediate his defence through schisms, with a vitality and volatility far beyond what he’s ever achieved.
In order to achieve this, however, Marty has to both witness Aaron’s split personality for himself and calibrate how effectively it can embody the two spatial schemes that collided at the crime scene. He does this by provoking him in a small interview room, using some of the cues that Molly has discerned, until Aaron shifts into an alternative persona named Roy. Like the opening aerial shots, Roy commands space aggressively and expansively, lashing out at Marty until he’s forced to retreat to the opposite corner of the room. By contrast, when Aaron returns, he’s completely recessive, withdrawing to his own small pocket of personal space, cradling himself like he’s one of the soft fixtures in the Archbishop’s bedroom. Conversely, Roy makes the room seem as claustrophobic as the Archbishop’s bedroom to Marty, while Aaron concedes so much space that Marty seems to float around the room like those eaely aerial shots. Shifting between Aaron and Marty therefore captures the dynamic cusp between civic and institutional space, between bedroom and urban blight, that drives the crime scene.
By enacting this transition in such a confined space, Marty proves to himself that he can make Aaron embody the crime scene in the same way if he orchestrates things right in court. From this point, his defence doesn’t involve identifying a third party, or trying to establish exculpatory motivation. Instead, it involves totally collapsing Aaron into the crime scene, as if the schism of encountering these two competing spatial schemes at the Archbishop’s front door was in and of itself enough to explain the crime. As a result, Aaron comes to embody the contact point between victims of corrupt institutions and institutions themselves. Or, rather, Aaron is the victim of corrupt institutions, whereas Roy embodies those institutions, speaking in the voice of the Archbishop and reproving Marty as if he were Aaron. Together, Aaron and Roy embody a demonic presence in the very architecture of late capitalism, insinuating itself into the space between civic institutions and the public space they were supposed to protect.
At this point, Marty, and the film, stop trying to imagine this cusp between institutional and public space in physical terms. Instead, Hoblit starts to present it in terms of a broader shift in media, while Marty deflects it into his perennial professional question of he can best mediate himself through the city. When Aaron first hovers on the cusp of Roy, he seems to be triggered by the camera recording the interview as much as by Molly’s probing questions. He registers the beeping of the camera at an accelerating rate, while the camera seems to recognise him in a different way too, flickering and glitching pre-emptively as Roy starts to emerge. Marty keeps scrutinising this second of footage, trying to discern the spatial cusp between bedroom and street in the glitch that temporarily clouds Aaron’s features and then discloses Roy. In these moments, Marty seems to be trying to pinpoint the precise space that he also needs to embody in order to mediate the city at its most schismatic and dissociated.
This glitch-cusp intensifies when Marty discovers a videotape of the Archbishop directing Aaron, his girlfriend, and another young man to have sex. Apparently, the Archbishop made many of these videos with Aaron, who felt compelled to comply, which explains why he was so transfixed and triggered by the camera in the interview room. However, rather than use a new videotape for each film, the Archbishop used this same tape over and over again. The original footage on the tape was a public address to his Archdiocese, meaning the tape translates the spatial cusp of the crime scene directly into physical media. It starts with the Archbishop’s address, then cuts to a prolonged period of static, before the sex tape finally emerges. Winning the case and maintaining his own poise, Marty realises, depends on getting Aaron to embody this glitch in the courtroom – or to embody the crime scene via this glitch.
This movement from a physical threshold (the space between the Archbishop’s bedroom and Marty’s capture) to a medial threshold (the glitch between the Archbishop’s address and his sex tape) adds a new dimension to the film’s vision of the future American city. Not only is public space on the verge of vanishing altogether, thanks to corrupt civic institutions, but it is being replaced with a new medial space that makes it easier to conceal this atrocity. Again, we see the genesis here of a cityscape that feels very familiar from the present – full of opportunities for us to mediate it through our own technological platforms and enterprises, but oddly lacking in anything resembling a classical public sphere, or properly public spaces.
To some extent, this emergent cityscape depends on a digital media sphere that’s beyond the scope of the film. Hoblit can only evoke it, or imagine it, in two ways – through this glitch that becomes synonymous with the crime scene, and by focusing on the videotape itself as a transitional object that becomes synonymous with the contested space between prosecution and defence. In one of the most eerily emergent scenes in the film, Janet goes through her evening routine, alone in her apartment, before opening her door to find the videotape left on her mat. The next day, in court, she cross-examines Marty’s investigator to prove that he did indeed leave it for her to use in evidence, effectively putting the videotape itself on trial.
This is the first step in the final stage of the trial, as Marty and Janet compete for how thoroughly they can mediate the city back into the courtroom, as they both try to enact and embody the city’s own schisms for the sake of their respective cases. Janet’s first step is interrogating Marty’s investigator, but Marty goes a step further, bringing the state’s attorney from the audience to the witness stand. Finally, Marty offers his coup de grace, provoking Aaron so that he lapses into Roy during Janet’s cross-examination. His plan succeeds, as Roy embodies the crime scene and glitches the trial so thoroughly that he is declared insane. Marty hangs his case and his whole career on that threshold, summoning his greatest poise to date for a controlled chaos that collapses the courtroom, but on his terms – or so he thinks.
Part of that Marty’s supreme poise here involves positioning himself so precisely at the schisms and contradictions of the case that he now also embodies them. Like the Archbishop, who seems momentarily brought back to life here, Marty proves himself to be a protector and predator in equal measure. Sure, he’s got Aaron (or Roy) the institutional help he deserves, but he also costs Janet her job, and provokes Roy until he almost kills her in court. This seems like the most refined and rarefied version of Marty’s mediatory project, which we now realise is mediatory in both senses of the word. He only wants to mediate the city, and embody its schisms, so he can fix those schisms, meaning his most precious position is to be just on the right side of the law, so attuned to the system he can restore it from deep within.
Yet that fantasy of a beneficent mediation of the city collapses in the final scene and twist, when Aaron reveals that the split personality was all a show. Marty is shocked enough to discover that there was never any Roy, but Roy corrects him – there was never any Aaron. Rather than simply embodying the cusp between an older public sphere and a corporate city future, Roy reveals to Marty that this older public sphere was always corrupt to begin with. Just when Marty seems to have found the precise poise to remediate and rehabilitate the city’s public spaces, Roy presents these spaces as fruit of the poisoned tree. The public sphere of monopoly capitalism was just as compromised as the privatised sphere of late capitalism, meaning that Marty’s efforts to mediate the two is more than futile – it is utterly incoherent.
Hence the incredible closing shots of the film, which jettison Gere in space more traumatically than any film before or since. As Marty leaves the courtroom, Hoblit returns to the aerial shots that opened the film, but they’re dramatically different now. Instead of careening across a landscape, they’re fixed directly above Hoblit’s head, trapping him in the middle of the frame. We then cut to the final shot of the film – Marty standing in an indeterminate way in front of the camera, caught in a pose so entirely without poise that he seems utterly naked in his vulnerability. He’s far enough from the courtroom that he’s no longer quite in its purview, but he doesn’t have any clear destination either, as he pauses inchoately, caught in the cusp between institutional and public space that he just thought he’d entirely mediated.
And this is the closing note of the film – Roy thrusting Marty back into the threshold that comprised the crime scene. Marty seems to be glitching himself here, unable to resolve his body language, while the camera also seems discorrelated from him, which is perhaps why Marty seems to be grasping for the camera itself, or why Marty and the camera both converge as they grasp for a digital language to express what’s only inchoate in analog space and time. Part of what I love about the trademark emergence of 90s thrillers is that it prepared us for twists in especially resonant ways, even as those twists absorbed that emergence, and continued to resonate long after the film was over. Marty’s tortured posture in this final shot embodies that twisted emergence, registering a change in urban life that can’t be mediated – and this emergence is the primal fear of the film, the prescience that makes it so haunting.