Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Anthony Hopkins, Maura Tierney, Donald Sutherland, George Dzundza, John Aylward, John Ashton.
1999 126 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 6, 1999.
So the theatrical trailer set the film up to be an exciting thriller, when in actuality it is a deliberately-paced prison drama. I can live with this deceivement, of course, because motion picture trailers falsely advertise all the time (remember how 1998's marvelous "Rushmore" was billed as a crazy, lowbrow, madcap comedy?). What is an outrage, however, is how director Jon Turteltaub's "Instinct" is a direct rip-off of hundreds of other movies, and not even a passable one at that, as it piles on such thick, nauseating layers of weepy, unbelievable melodrama when, judging from the overall premise, we should be on the edge of our seats. Do not put the blame on the actors for this film's failings, although they all should have known better. No, the culprits of "Instinct" are Turteltaub, whose direction is flat and emotionless (even though, strangely enough, the characters all wear their caricaturized emotions on their sleeves), and screenwriter Gerald DiPego, adapting from the 1992 novel, "Ishmael," by Daniel Quinn, who apparently has no idea how to construct interesting or stimulating dialogue. If anything, DiPego does have the non-virtue of corniness down pat.
"Instinct" begins as dedicated primatologist Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) is being transported to the run-down Harmony Bay Correctional Facility, following a 2-year disappearance within the jungles of Rwanda, where he lived with the apes, and the animalistic murders of two park rangers. Enter novice psychiatrist Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who is assigned to take on the case by his mentor, Dr. Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland), and travel down to Harmony Bay to speak with Powell, who has since stopped talking and obtained a nasty temper, to put it mildly. After arriving, Caulder is almost instantly repulsed by the way the inmates are treated by the prison warden (John Aylward) and guards, being shocked or severely beaten simply for looking at their superiors crossway. After their first few meetings, Powell surprisingly begins to talk again, discussing his tranquil experiences among the apes of the Rwanda jungles, as well as his apprehension to reunite with his loving daughter (Maura Tierney), whom he feels he has drifted too far from for their relationship to be salvaged. There's really not much more to discuss story-wise, since the majority of the running time is dedicated to endless babbling between Caulder and Powell, neither of whom have anything worthwhile to say to each other.
"Instinct" is a strange film, indeed. On one end is the relationship that forms between Powell and Caulder. Many viewers have compared this film to "The Silence of Lambs," but they have very few similarities, even though Powell is supposed to be a killer, and the performance by Hopkins is very different than that of Hannibal Lecter. As Caulder learns more and more about why Powell was lead to murder after his beloved apes began to be hunted, we are supposed to believe that Caulder has a life-changing transformation. This aspect of the film is about as easy to swallow as a chicken bone, and when Caulder tells Powell in the groan-inducing climax that he has been "saved," I didn't believe it for a second. For one, how can audiences understand how Caulder has been saved when throughout the film, the only thing we learn about him is that he is a young psychiatrist. Do we learn about his past? His family? No. Apparently he has no actual life outside of his profession, and it is this problem that thoroughly peeves me. Why exactly is it that in the majority of films about lawyers or psychiatrists, we are never allowed to learn anything about them? Are screenwriters so lazy, or clueless, in today's times to write at least a few scenes in which we actually get to know the characters? I guess so. And the sight of Caulder late in the film, with his arms outstretched in the middle of a rainstorm, is blatant plagarism of 1994's somewhat similar prison drama, "The Shawshank Redemption."
Unexpectedly, about half of the running time is actually dedicated to the way the one-dimensional guards and warden abuse the inmates which, I guess, is a direct ode to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." This subplot is written in such a heavy-handed, manipulative manner that we are even pushed to suffer through an "uplifting" riot scene, headed by Caulder, who wants to overthrow the unjust way in which the inmates are chosen to go outside each day (it is done by giving out playing cards, and the winner is the holder of the ace of diamonds). As everyone begins to chant the same triumphant thing in unison, one at a time they tear up their cards and through them to the floor. This is peeve #2 in the annals of syrupy moviemaking.
Finally, the third section of the film, which is given the least amount of time but is the only bearable one, deals with Powell's neglected daughter. A possible romance is brought up briefly between Caulder and she, but it is quickly dropped, leaving me to wonder why the whole scene wasn't simply cut out. This subplot does mildly work, nonetheless, mainly because of Maura Tierney's touching performance and it holds the best scene in the film, the inevitable reunion between father and daughter.
Aside from the disasterous writing and directing, "Instinct" has its fair share of other problems, as well, beginning with the painfully overlong 2-hour-plus running time, about fifteen minutes of which is unnecessarily dedicated to Powell sitting around in the jungle with the apes. Speaking of the scenes set in the Rwandan jungles, it is so poorly shot, and the cinematography, by Philippe Rousselot, so insipid, that it more or less could have been filmed in the woods right next to my house. The usually reliable composer Danny Elfman (long-time collaborator with Tim Burton) also has struck out this time with a generic, forgettable music score.
With a film headed by talented performers Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr., you are ultimately led to believe that there will be at least some source of worthwhile material. Not this time. "Instinct" is a consistently dull, meandering motion picture that is never anything more than difficult to sit through and cannot be salvaged by the relatively unextraordinary performances of Gooding Jr. and Hopkins. About 25% of the audience I was with got up and left even before the end credits appeared. They had the right idea.
©1999 by Dustin Putman