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Instinct

Review by David Luty
Posted 4 June 1999

  Directed by John Turteltaub

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr.,
Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza,
John Ashton, Gary A. Rogers, Ivonne Coll,
Victor Iemolo, and Kurt Smildsin,

Written by Daniel Quinn and Gerald Di Pego

Considerable star power isn’t nearly enough to raise Instinct from the muck of cheaply bought and borrowed sentiment.

A crowd-pleasing, sentimentally-minded drama like Instinct (which for some inexplicable reason is being marketed as a suspense thriller) will go far out of its way, during its every breath and movement, to induce not just an emotional reaction, but a physical one as well. Every overly programmed scene seems dedicated to generating goosebumps, tears, or hopefully both. Instinct, much of the time, will probably just make your skin crawl. Jon Turteltaub (the director of Phenomenon, a flighty bit of bunk in its own right), one-ups himself this time, and after having Travolta and Duvall legitimize his last film, he has again managed, somehow, to acquire two exceptionally talented actors to lead the way through the hokum.

The script to Instinct (adapted by Gerald DiPego from the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn) is nothing but a collection of feel-good high points borrowed from other films. The story focuses around one of those psychiatrist-patient relationships, ala Good Will Hunting, where inevitably the doctor thanks the patient in some way for teaching him how to live (here it’s stated precisely that way). The action is set predominantly in a psychiatric prison, where the cute, cuddly inmates are taught to think for themselves and rebel against the cold, callous Nurse Ratchet-figure, embodied by a cold, callous, and belligerent prison guard (John Ashton). There is much empty-headed, generic talk of the importance of freedom, complete with a shot, straight out of Shawshank Redemption, of a man looking up into a driving rainstorm with arms outstretched to the heavens. And just to make sure no one has missed their shot at a good cry, Gorillas in the Mist-style reverence for and cruelty against some ever noble, cute and cuddly primates abounds.

That’s a whole lot of hokum for one movie, and a huge amount of credit must go to Cuba Gooding Jr. and especially Anthony Hopkins for making any of it the least bit watchable. Gooding uses all of his wide-eyed ebullience to play ambitious young psychiatrist Theo Caulder, who drools over the opportunity to study Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist just extradited from Africa for the vicious murder of two park rangers. Powell, who had been living with gorillas day and night in their jungle habitat for two years, returns home not having spoken a word since rejoining the human race, and behaves with the quick-tempered violence of a wild animal who throws his holders around as if he had the strength of ten men. It is Caulder’s job to evaluate the mute doctor in preparation for an upcoming hearing that will decide his fate, to get past the animal to the rational human inside. Powell talks soon enough, and oh does he talk, offering Caulder sound-bite-size life lessons focused on the petty, destructive ways of human civilization.

Powell’s philosophies are never more than cookie-cut and Caulder is never much more than a sounding board for them, even though the script clearly wishes to give Caulder the tidy emotional arc of a main character, complete with a half-baked Big Speech about how much his life has changed thanks to Powell (even though the film couldn’t care less about Caulder’s life outside of Powell). Gooding Jr.’s earnest likeability, which can at times be a bit too earnest, makes such character deficiencies somewhat palatable, but Hopkins has an even greater hurdle to overcome. While Caulder at least takes on the recognizable form of a human being, Powell, in his mythic manliness, is even less of a character, he’s really nothing more than a big fat Philosophical Standpoint. Hopkins, an infinitely compelling actor no matter what he’s doing, helps ground his role into something vaguely human with his considerable vocal gravity and the ocean-deep sadness that flows so effortlessly from his eyes.

But ultimately, the gifts Gooding Jr. and Hopkins bring to the table are just more tools to be put at the service of director Turteltaub’s unfortunate love of the simple-minded sentimental flourish. He doesn’t ignore a single opportunity, and too often tries to create opportunities where they don’t belong, to direct his scenes toward some banal emotional high-point. With the assistance of mugging actors (plus mugging animatronic gorillas), an atypically maudlin Danny Elfman score, and a camera that loves the Meaningful Closeup (this whole movie is in Caps), Turteltaub uses every cliche and stock movie moment in the book to get a rise out of the audience. And for many audience members, a rise, of anger, may be just what Turteltaub gets. Because it takes great big gorilla-sized cojones to make Instinct the title of a film this nakedly calculated.


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