90% of this is a typical courtroom drama, but the subversive tenth makes it completely worth watching. The social issue it gets at - corruption and abuse in the Catholic church - lacks punch these days, but I'm sure it was a lot more relevant 15 years ago, so it receives a tentative pass from me. The investigative legwork is unilaterally uninteresting regardless of what year you're approaching it from. This is little more than a high-budget Law and Order Episode, with sexy justice antics that wouldn't in a million years be allowed in a real life court. The acting is passable, perfectly within what's expected from a movie of this caliber, but most of the players here had and have done better. Laura Linney is stunning during her prosecutions, but she feels oddly canned during her interactions with Richard Gere. As an actress who takes painstaking care to craft realistic characters, seeing this caricature of a jaded workaholic feels either like a bad directorial decision or just a really unpleasant surprise. Edward Norton's performance here was the first brick paved in a long road of mysterious characters, all waiting to explode with volcanic violence. Ultimately, his product here owes an awful lot to Seven and Silence of the Lambs for a pretty specific reason. His portrayal of Aaron Stampler is lively, and probably the best anyone could have done, but the character itself is not really realistic. Richard Gere sucks and I hate him but he's not too bad here, honestly. The role was basically written for him, but if you've got a niche, stick with it.
To discuss Primal Fear's claim to fame, the ending is initially a little bit of a sideswipe, but eventually unfolds after the movie's over as more positive than negative. The movie reaches it, it has to be said, on some unfair terms; a moral gray area is completely obliterated to keep the audience's biases appeased, and for everyone to go home feeling at least a little happy the two "good guys" have to kind of be douchebags. Really, everyone in this movie is sort of a douchebag, but I guess that's why the ending works.