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Instinct

movie reviewmovie review out of 4


*Also starring: Maura Tierney, Donald Sutherland



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, received massive publicity partly because of the extent of the tragedy, but as much because the perpetrators were privileged kids living in an upper- middle class suburban area of the country. Psychologists appear to agree that the killers--who wore trench coats and referred to themselves as mafia--were outsiders, disdained and ignored not only by the "in" cliques of athletes but by women and scholarly types as well. They did not fit in and so they took brutal revenge.

"Instinct" deals as well with a violent man--one who becomes an outsider, but by his own volition. Repudiating the safety, prestige and comfort of his academic profession, he puts himself outside of so-called civilized society, living alone among the gorillas of Rwanda for two years. For motivations which should not be revealed in a review lest such disclosure spoil a key plot point, the man summons fearsome strength in attacking park rangers with a wooden club, killing two and injuring others. Placed in a solitary cell in a bleak African prison for a year, he grows his white hair and beard to great lengths and refuses to speak to anyone. But because he is a celebrated anthropologist, the U.S. State Department manages to secure his release, fly him back to Florida, and incarcerate him in a maximum security prison that resembles the institution of last year's documentary "The Farm" more than it does the correctional facility displayed in the movie "Life."

"Instinct," which balances educated (if sophomoric) discussion with occasional bouts of violence, juggles more ideas about the human condition than Freud and Kierkegaard could have formulated in a year. While nothing novel is trumpeted--certainly nothing that would gain the attention of major peer-review magazines--director Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon," "3 Ninjas") keeps both the physical action and the verbal exchanges flowing, gradually revealing the demons that arouse the scholar to murderous fury. The picture shows off unusually good chemistry between Anthony Hopkins as the besieged prisoner Ethan Powell and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Theo Caulder--the therapist who seeks to uncover the mystery of the professor's mind but winds up finding out more about himself than he learns about his reluctant patient.

The story opens in Rwanda (actually filmed among the lush vegetation of Jamaica) as Professor Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) is transferred by the African authorities to the U.S. State Department in preparation for his incarceration in a prison for the criminally insane in Florida. The ironically- named Harmony Bay facility, run by a pragmatic warden (John Aylward) and staffed by psychiatrist John Murray (George Dzundza) and brutal guards like Dacks (John Ashton), is overcrowded. To help control the inmates, the prison resorts to the principle of divide and rule, manipulating the convicts to take out their anger on one another rather than on the staff. Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is assigned to assist in the psychotherapy, but his real interest is in Dr. Powell. What makes a man in a staid, secure profession turn violently criminal?

Those sections of "Instinct" that deal with the turbulent talk sessions between the anthropologist and the psychiatrist are the most involving, notwithstanding the Psych. 101 level of dialogue. As the two professional men talk--or, rather, stalk each other like creatures on a Rwandan jungle--they make us privy to such issues as the nature of freedom, the lust for control and domination, and the concept of illusion. When Powell accuses his helper of being a "taker," a person consumed, even tied-up-in-knots by ambition, we think of the character of Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's great satire, "Election."

As Dr. Caulder encourages the patient to "show me the violence" he learns quite a bit about himself. He finds out that his primary motive is not the search for knowledge but his own desire to advance his career--to publish an article about his unhappy patient, perhaps even to get out a best-seller that re-creates the buttoned-up psychiatrist as a genuine hero.

As "Instinct" is a studio-made film, an entertaining, well- acted one indeed, we are not surprised by the dollops of sentimentality that scripter Gerald DiPego uses to pepper the action. Powell's daughter Lyn (Maura Tierney) yearns to have her estranged father "back," but Powell does not want even to talk about her. When Caulder lends the intelligent and witty, but heartbroken, woman an ear, director Turteltaub hints at a budding romance between the two. The story strains credibility at various points: where does a sixty-year old academic get the strength to virtually pulverize a three- hundred pound, much younger prisoner, and to smash his way through a batallion of police officers determined to restrain him? By what vigor can he overpower several young and muscular African park rangers who, presumably, work out quite a bit more than the hirsute primatologist? How does Powell manage to get the lion's share of attention from the guards and to have his session run from a room inside the prison, while the other unfortunates, who need services as well in this overcrowded facility, must settle for quick meetings in an entirely public part of the recreation area?

Donald Sutherland does a credible job as Ben HIllard, who is Theo Caulder's mentor, who advises the ambitious young man to think primarily of his career and not of his wish to help the enraged and frequently silent patient he is studying. John Ashton has the appropriate demeanor as the sadistic guard. But the other supporting players who are prisoners--Paul Bates as Bluto, Ian Ingram as Lester Rodman, and Thomas Q. Morris as Pete--are directed as cartoonish characters.

Many in the audience will be reminded of "The Silence of the Lambs," in which Anthony Hopkins dazzled as the psychotic criminal Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter, with Jodie Foster in the Cuba Gooding, Jr. role as the person who tries to get through to him. But "Instinct" is closer in temperament to Peter Shaffer's play "Equus," the story of an English psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, working with an obsessed lover of horses, Alan Strang, who commits a barbarous act. While Dysart is horrified by his patient's psychosis, he secretly admires the young man's vitality and ends up questioning his own staid, middle-class life. "Instinct" is inspired by the screenwriter's book, "Ishmael," more of a meditation between a man and a gorilla than an action adventure. Turteltaub has turned the book into a not-always- convincing balance of escapade and reflection, eminently watchable with its National Geographic-like shots of Hopkins living as a human being among the gorillas that fully accept him.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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