Jason Myers reviews 'Instinct'

June 02, 1999|By Jason Myers

The problem that I have when I read or listen to a psychologist is that his language is lost somewhere between that of a poet and a scientist. Psychology is a muddling of the two.

[cont. from lifestyle]

So you'll have to forgive me if I do not thrill to see psychologists as principal characters in films. It is to the credit, then, of screenwriter Gerald Di Pego and Cuba Gooding Jr. that Theo Caulder (Gooding), the protagonist in the new psychological thriller "Instinct," has the etching of a human being.

But there is the problem. He is still too much of a protagonist, too limited in his role as a psychiatrist. When the filmmakers flirt - as Caulder does with Elisabeth Powell (Laura Tierney) - with adding something of a life to good Theo, they fail with the obviousness of someone just learning the language of dating. There actually is a lovely jangle to the exchanges between Theo and Elisabeth.


Di Pego and the actors give the scenes an offhand charm that at first feels too awkward but begins to gather the weight of true human relationship.

Sadly, director Jon Turteltaub has heavier issues to deal with - like how sweet mentally insane people are, and how cruel and ignorant those sober souls called regular citizens can be.

Caulder enters a maximum security facility in Miami to study Dr. Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), Elisabeth's father. Powell was a primatologist who went to Africa to be with gorillas in the mist (there's a reference to Sigourney Weaver by one of the facility's mental patients that seems oddly knowing). He has returned to the United States shackled and speechless, having attacked and killed several men in Rwanda (as though they needed the help of an outsider for extermination).

There's an awfully edited scene in the beginning of the movie when Powell attacks the special agents escorting him through the Miami airport, and I feared the movie would become some preposterous variation on "The Fugitive" - with the one-armed man replaced by a silver-backed gorilla.

Caulder, whom Gooding plays with fine poise and the most charming sort of arrogance, believes he can penetrate the beastly tendencies of Powell and get him to reveal the situations and emotions that compelled him to murder. It takes awhile (a few scenes), but eventually the two doctors develop a rapport that can transcend the bureaucracy of the system.

Audiences likely will relate Hopkins' character in "Instinct" to Hannibal Lecter. But he is only half as cunning here as he was in "Silence of the Lambs." If his performance, most noteworthy for his long brambly hair and beard, illustrates anything, it is that he would be magnificent as Ernest Hemingway.

Turteltaub would likewise do well to read Hemingway to learn the value of sparity as style. His badgering, righteous tone is well-acquitted by Danny Elfman's score. Elfman, who has done everything from "Batman" to "Good Will Hunting," never has written music so predictable. Yet there are more moments of ingenuity in his score than in the movie itself.

There is a bustling scene of institutional uprising when Caulder undermines the authority of the security guards and dozens of mentally-ill men (actors who didn't make the call-back for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") tear up playing cards. Watching this hopelessly absurd scene, I wished Turteltaub had been forced to watch Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" a thousand times before he was allowed to shoot "Instinct."

The movie is, for all its primitive delights and flaws, gripping - I just found myself sore from the grip.

"Instinct" is a bit too eager to be intelligent. Though the makers likely thought the words of Powell, who convinces Caulder that civilization isn't so great after all, represent some sterling design for humanity, they are little more (indeed, probably less) than Cliffs Notes for Rousseau.

Still, the movie must be congratulated for the ideas it engages. Though I think his lighting a bit too bright and flat, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot's character framing astutely emphasizes the relationship between man and gorilla. I think the filmmakers are just slightly too excited by this relationship, and I wish they had developed some more human ones.

Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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