Instinct

Director(s): John Turteltaub

Writer(s): Gerald Di Pego

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward and Marc Macaulay

Reviewed by: Brian Panhuyzen on

Release Date(s)

Jun 4, 1999 - Wide

Anthropologist Ethan Powell (ANTHONY HOPKINS) is being returned to America after spending several years in an African prison for killing two park rangers and wounding three others with a wooden club. He has not spoken since the murders and hotshot psychiatrist Theo Caulder (CUBA GOODING JR.) wants a crack at burrowing into Powell’s subconscious to find out exactly why he snapped. Thus begins a series of sessions between Powell and Caulder at the state correctional facility where Powell is being held, an underfunded prison where the mentally challenged criminals are mistreated and denied their basic rights.

Despite a competent script and good performances from Hopkins and Gooding, Instinct fails to engage the audience because it lacks unity and direction. Hopkins is fine as the unpredictable Powell, although parallels between this role and his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs are many, while Gooding deftly handles the careerest but well-meaning Dr. Caulder. The better scenes in this film involve interaction between these two actors.

A major annoyance is the heavy-handed attempts to build suspense about Powell’s next outrageous act, usually followed by some high-impact foley effect to punctuate a scene and make the audience leap from their seats. These devices invariable come off as cheap attempts to stir us awake. Pacing is weak, and there were many moments when I illuminated my neighbours with the light from my Indiglo watch.

The best and most moving scenes of this picture are in the flashback sequences showing Powell’s interaction with the gorillas he is studying. We watch, enraptured, as he transitions from the scientist outside their circle to a member of the band. Naturally we know that all this can’t remain peachy and idyllic, and the resolution is heartbreaking.

But then we are forced back into the muddy crawl of the movie’s plot. We are expected to both sympathize and laugh at the inmates’ maltreatment, while faced with the clich├ęd evil prison guard (reminding me of that sensationalist piece of TV trash, Oz]) which we know will result in the inmates’ eventual revenge.

Pandering to all aspects of the Hollywood formula, there is of course a love interest (though muted) for our young Dr. Caulder, in Powell’s daughter. In this role Maura Tierney is never allowed much more lattitude in her acting than a constant frustrated furrowing of the brow.

Instinct does have its moments, but the whole is less than equal to the sum of its parts and as a result the film is little more than quietly forgettable.

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of The Death of the Moon, a collection of short stories published by Cormorant Books.