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Gorillas in Our Midst

Instinct battles good sense.

by Susan Ellis

fter seeing Instinct, one can hardly blame its star Anthony Hopkins for wanting to give up acting for good. It's not that he doesn't get to have fun. He runs, he holds a baby gorilla (so cute and fuzzy!), and, in a climactic scene, he puts co-star Cuba Gooding Jr. in a headlock and squeezes and squeezes. But the result of all this activity has got to be frustrating for Hopkins. Think of Gloria Swanson and her "It's the pictures that got small" line. For in the end, as the camera flies over the lush jungles of Africa, it becomes stunningly clear that this movie lacks any grace or any art, despite its lofty intentions.

Hopkins plays Dr. Ethan Powell, a noted primatologist who went missing for two years while studying gorillas in Rwanda. When he turns up, it's as a mute and a killer of two men. Back in the States, he's put in a decrepit prison for the criminally insane called Harmony Bay. There he meets Theo Caulder (Gooding Jr.), a hot-shot psychiatrist who sees Powell as his meal ticket.

Once Dr. Powell stops trying to stab Dr. Caulder with a pencil, things start rolling. Powell speaks, and he speaks of his years in Rwanda and of the gorilla family that slowly began to accept him as one of their own. Though the two doctors struggle for control (which is pretty much a moot point after the headlock incident), Caulder gets sucked in by his patient and the larger message he delivers.

It's that larger message that spoils the movie. Presumably, it's a noble message, one about the state of man and the confines of civilization. Yet, coupled with the film's actions and outcome, the message ultimately is full of holes and a bit disconcerting.

Powell is the "unbridled man," as noted by Caulder's advisor (a small part played by Donald Sutherland). He achieved a natural state by becoming one with the gorillas, animals that live unselfishly. Powell prattles on about "takers," every man, woman, and child who likes the comfort of cars and air-conditioning and the like. He bellows, too, about "freedom" and "control," insisting that the guards who jerk him around by his shackles only think they've got them, when he knows it's only those who live in a pure state of mind, like the gorillas and his fellow mental patients, who have both in spades. (Insert primal scream here.)

When Caulder finally comes to his senses, he says, "You taught me to live outside of the game. You taught me how to live." (Insert gag sound here.)

Instinct is "suggested" by Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael, with a screenplay by Gerald DiPego and directed by Jon Turteltaub. Suggested is the key word here, since it would be nice to know on whom exactly to pin the blame. Whoever it was seems to have gone to one too many Promise Keepers meetings.

For one thing, Powell is not the natural man. If he were, he wouldn't have spent two years with the gorillas, as depicted in the film, fully dressed. He would have been shown prancing about half-naked with a woman half-naked and a child wholly naked. Nor would he have abandoned the wife and child he has in the States. Maura Tierney has a small role as his daughter, the sole woman in the film, but she's beside the point. Powell sputters whenever she's brought up, and then the matter is conveniently taken care of. He is, instead, a man just waiting to spout off self-righteously about the ills of man, while being the paternalistic caretaker who, at the same time, takes no responsibility for his actions.

That the film parallels the plight of the gorillas with that of the mentally ill is troubling. Instinct deals with these issues with a broad, vague stroke that is random and misguided. And while the filmmakers work to build admiration for this one true man, they seem to forget that their hero did kill two people in a fit of vengeance.

They also seem to have been missing common sense, not to mention a basic instinct, for good filmmaking.

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