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Instinct
Good ideas and middling execution make for a perplexingly likeable film
Instinct
Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
USA, 1999
Every so often the moviegoing public is reminded that the people who make trailers and other ads don't always have the same mandate as the director. To be fair, though, it's not always their fault. Take the case of Instinct, which, like some of its background characters, suffers from a few personality problems.

The TV ads look a little something like this: a feral Anthony Hopkins attacking anything that moves; a terrified-looking Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Donald Sutherland looking concerned; and a bunch of jittery, animated type.

Granted, there are times when Hopkins beats the crap out of someone, and there are times when Gooding is terrified. Sutherland also spends most of the movie looking concerned, so we can't fault the ads for that.

What the ads don't tell you is that Anthony Hopkins's character, Ethan Powell, is a doctor--a primatologist, in fact, who disappeared while studying gorillas in Rwanda, only to resurface in a Rwandan prison, charged for the murder of two men. Ben Hillard (Sutherland) is the psychiatrist assigned to determine whether or not the extradited Powell is insane, but he hands the case over to Theo Caulder (Gooding), his hotshot student.

The parallels to Silence of the Lambs present themselves immediately. Anthony Hopkins plays a doctor locked away in an institution for the criminally insane, while a zealous young'un mentally fences with him in order to unravel a life-or-death mystery. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Hopkins isn't insane. If anything, his time among the gorillas has made him the clearest-thinking member of the entire cast. Like Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, Gooding's Caulder ends up becoming the (supposed) madman's student--learning about the dark side of humanity, and their own fears.

But unlike Foster, Gooding doesn't quite hold his own against Hopkins. Hopkins plays Powell with the same intensity as he did Hannibal Lecter, while also exuding compassion and understanding when necessary; Caulder is supposed to be experiencing self-realization as he becomes more involved with Powell, but it isn't quite as convincing. Gooding plays him as too much of a cipher for us to really feel the transformation. We're told that he's something of a careerist, and we're told that he changes as the movie goes on, but we pretty have to take everyone's word for it.

There's another plot intertwined with all this, about the prison for the criminally insane where Lecter--sorry, Powell--is being held. The guards are sadistic, and the administrators have become so worn down as to be indifferent. As you can imagine, it's not very pretty, and it's ripe for even nominal reform by the movie's end. It's quite crucial to the story, as the evolving situation illustrates the social dynamics that Powell tries to explain to Caulder.

Unfortunately, hand-in-hand with that us Caulder's attempted reformation of the prison's system, which, among other things, is meant to show how he changes as a person. Instead, it comes off as a crazy pastiche of a dozen clichés from other mistreated-asylum-inmate stories.

And so, the advertiser's dilemma: what to make of Instinct? The performances and storyline vary from wince-inducing to brilliant throughout, and I confess that while watching the film I sometimes forgot what the point of it all was. Ultimately I liked Instinct, but would be hard-pressed to explain why. I'm just glad I didn't have to make the trailer.

A Critical Eye exclusive (June 6, 1999)
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