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Instinct

A review by Graeme Bacque

While at first glance this film appears to be the product of a bizarre marriage between The Silence of the Lambs and Gorillas in the Mist, a closer look shows little actual resemblance to either of these pictures. And while Anthony Hopkins might appear to be in danger of becoming typecast, his role in this film is in no way a mirror of his Hannibal Lecter persona.

To put it bluntly, this is one of the most intriguing and disturbing films I've seen in a long time.

The story revolves around an ambitious young psychiatrist named Theo Caulder (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Caulder is seeking to do an assessment of  prominent anthropologist Ethan Powell (Hopkins) who had been convicted in Rwanda of murdering two park rangers and putting three other people in the hospital. Powell had spent years in Africa studying the mountain gorilla and subsequently had disappeared for two years - during which time he was apparently living among a troupe of these creatures. During a year spent in a Rwandan jail he had not uttered a single word.

The whole film seems to be based on dichotomies - the first of these is shown in the scenes where Powell is transferred to the United States. To be transported to the airport in Rwanda  he is placed in the back of  a truck along with two viciously snarling Dobermans. Upon his arrival he is shown with both these dogs lying docilely, their heads in his lap and wearing completely devoted expressions. Conversely, upon his arrival at Miami Airport he suddenly erupts, flattening half a dozen cops in a wild dash for freedom.

Caulder and Powell meet in the psychiatric range of a particularly bleak maximum-security prison. The sheer brutality of this environment is hard to take - in one example of  incredible callousness, each day the guards determine which inmate is to be permitted outdoor time by randomly flicking playing cards into the cells  (the Ace of Diamonds being the winner) then standing back  to watch as the inmates battle one another in the gymnasium for the winning card. 

It is in this climate where Caulder and Powell come together.  Both men are immediately launched into a fascinating examination of everything this society holds sacred - which  eventually is revealed to be a corrupt nightmare world of human creation. Caulder quickly learns some humbling - and initially frightening - lessons at the hands of his 'patient', who soon assumes the leading role in the ensuing dialogue.

Powell speaks eloquently and at length of the world of 'takers' that he had once belonged to and had subsequently abandoned for the simpler, more principled environment of the rainforest and the community of the beings which inhabit it. In a depiction through flashbacks, little by little he symbolically sheds the trappings of western 'civilization'... first abandoning his camera, then leaving a set of binoculars dangling from a shrub, finally flinging his protective clothing aside, spreading his arms wide to embrace a driving rainstorm.

The U.S. system is grimly portrayed as the bleak, indescribably violent environment of the prison, standing in sharp contrast to the sheer freedom, beauty and peace of the rainforest. In one heartbreaking sequence filmed at a local zoo, the caged gorillas display a profound apathy; a 'giving up' that renders them mere shadows of the magnificent animals that dwell in the Rwandan bush. It soon becomes apparent why Powell had abandoned the harsh reality of human society for the gentler climate of the gorilla community. This stands as parable for the entire human condition.

The reason for Powell's violence is eventually made clear through these flashbacks, as shots suddenly erupt from the jungle. The gorillas flee in terror or fall to the ground screaming in pain from bullet wounds. As several armed, uniformed men emerge from the trees Powell grabs a stout tree branch - then acts in a desperate defense of his surrogate family before being beaten to the ground.

Initially it appears that we are to be denied a happy ending, as just before the competency hearing that could potentially free him, Powell again finds it necessary to defend someone, in this case a weaker person facing a beating from a sadistic guard, in the course of which the screw is slightly injured. After this he appears to have regressed back to where he started - standing motionless and silent staring out a window. But he has not surrendered, as is revealed momentarily by the sight of the window gaping open. Powell was nowhere to be seen.

GRAEME BACQUE
JUNE 15, 1999