Do you remember Ethan Powell?
Used to work here... anthropology... went to Africa and killed a few people.
"Instinct" is hardly original, with plot elements and scenes that call to mind a number of other films. In this case, shades of "Tarzan", "Silence of the Lambs", "Gorillas in the Mist", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Nell", and any film in the prison genre are readily apparent. And though it offers up some interesting discussion points on man's disharmony with nature, the script by Gerald Di Pego (who also wrote the screenplay for "Message in a Bottle") is rather predictable, effortlessly telegraphing every plot point, right up to the film's final two scenes. Fortunately, this otherwise by-the-book psychological drama has two things going for it-- Anthony Hopkins ("Meet Joe Black") and Cuba Gooding Jr. ("What Dreams May Come"). It is the fine performances of these two actors that ultimately salvage "Instinct", making the recycled proceedings somewhat more tolerable.
Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins) was a celebrated and brilliant anthropologist who ventured into the jungles of Africa to study mountain gorillas. Obsessed by his need to fully understand his subjects, Powell sacrificed everything for his insatiable thirst for knowledge, which inadvertently estranged him from both his wife and his daughter Lynn (Maura Tierney of "Liar Liar"). He soon disappeared, only to re-emerge from the jungle in chains a year later. The former anthropologist had become a mute 'wild man', charged with clubbing two park rangers to death.
They said he walked among them, part of the animal group.
He lives with the animals, takes on their behavior, becomes one. How does that happen?
Through the pressure of the U.S. State Department, Powell is brought back to the United States, where he is placed in the psychiatric wing of Harmony Bay, a maximum security prison in Florida. It is here that he comes to the attention of Dr. Theo Caulder (Gooding Jr.), a bright and ambitious psychiatrist on his way up to a brilliant career. Caulder begs his mentor (Donald Sutherland) for the opportunity to evaluate Powell's competency to stand trial, in the hopes of uncovering what drove an otherwise normal individual to commit unspeakable acts of violence.
It's not like any other case, Ben... ever.
Unfortunately, Caulder gravely underestimates the difficulty of the task at hand, which he begins to realize as the interviews with Powell quickly become volatile episodes of verbal and intellectual sparring. However, despite the danger posed by his patient, Caulder becomes increasingly fascinated by Powell and obsessed by the need uncover the truth about his descent into savagery, even at the risk of losing his own objectivity. Meanwhile, other elements seemingly beyond Caulder's control threaten to derail Powell's slow and painful rehabilitation, including a hard-nosed no-nonsense prison warden (John Aylward), a staff psychiatrist with a laissez-faire attitude (George Dzundza), and a brutal guard (John Ashton) with a penchant for using his club to solve problems.
"Instinct" has very few surprises, and for the most part of its two hour running time, it is very clear in what direction the story is heading and what the final outcome will be. Like the doctor-patient relationship in 1997's "Good Will Hunting", the distinction between these two roles becomes increasingly blurred in "Instinct", as Caulder comes to better understand himself through his dialogue with Powell. Through their engaging verbal discourses and shared setbacks, they both manage to find peace within themselves and a renewed sense of hope. This sort of story is hardly new, since it has been done before in "Awakenings", "The Doctor", and of course, "Good Will Hunting".
Despite an otherwise prosaic story, "Instinct" still manages to elicit interest through the powerhouse performances delivered by its two leads. Hopkins effortlessly spans the dramatic range required of his character, easily shuffling between playing an enraged and out of control killer, as well as the guilt-ridden and tortured man underneath. Hopkins has always had a stately screen presence about him in addition to his gift for diction, and both are used to great effect to provide contrast between the two sides of his character. Gooding Jr. has typically been relegated to roles requiring over-the-top enthusiasm on his part, such as his Academy Award-winning role in "Jerry Maguire". Though this is evident at the beginning of the film, Gooding Jr. gets to show off his expanded dramatic repertoire as his character becomes increasingly emotionally entangled in Powell's plight. Together, these two actors share a unique chemistry in their shared scenes, play well of one another and never missing a beat in their lexical duet , with each actor bringing his own brand of intensity to the table.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is populated with thinly developed archetypal characters. The most criminally underwritten character is that of Lynn, giving Tierney very little to work with. Given that one of the main plot points was Powell's strained relationship with his daughter, it is surprising that Lynn's appearance in the film is scant, providing very little opportunity to develop the father-daughter relationship beyond that of a mere footnote. The other supporting characters are culled from the tired clichés of prison genre films past, and despite the attempts to integrate them into the Powell-Caulder relationship, they end up becoming obligatory characters that play a more functional role in advancing the plot.
"Instinct" winds up being mostly mundane, yet manages to be engrossing on occasion. In the hands of less talented actors, this would have been an unforgettable psychological drama that re-hashes elements from a number of superior films in the most predictable manner possible. Fortunately, the performances of Hopkins and Gooding Jr. make it is easier to overlook the script's obvious faults, making it more enjoyable than it should be, even through the slow parts.