(Jon Turtletaub, USA, 1999)


Instinct begins from an intriguing premise. Psychiatrist Theo (Cuba Gooding, Jr) is called into a maximum security prison in order to make some sense of Ethan (Anthony Hopkins) – a now withdrawn and silent 'wild man' who lived for several years with gorillas in Rwanda, and has murdered two rangers there.

The theme of a man who regresses to an animal state, discovering a direct path to his instinct, is potent and promising. Movies as diverse as The Wild Child (1970), The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1975) and Bad Boy Bubby (1994) all play with a central ambiguity: when does the civilising process, for good or ill, begin? Is it liberating or just plain tragic for someone to be cut off from the conventions and protocols of society?

Erotic themes (as in every variation of the Tarzan story) usually play a crucial role in such tales, but here the central concern seems to be family relationships. Not only does Ethan become a wise father-figure for Theo; Ethan's long severed relationship with his daughter, Lyn (Maura Tierney), emerges as the central problem of the drama. (A strange pre-echo here of Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby [2004]!)

Although based on a pop-philosophical book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, Instinct is finally not terribly interested in exploring the continuum between human and animal behaviour. The appeal to Nature is really only an alibi allowing the usual sermon about the need for all decent folks to 'find themselves' – and take up their appointed places in the social order.

Theo has a bad-father figure – Ben (Donald Sutherland), in a sadly lacklustre, rote part, after the delight of Without Limits (1998) – egging him onto ever-greater material, professional conquests. For Theo, the call of the wild provided by his brush with Ethan offers a handy, instant dose of New Age enlightenment.

Director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, 1993) and talented writer Gerald DiPego (Message in a Bottle, 1999) labour to work in a mystery element, but the result is far closer to a windy dud like Agnes of God (1985) than a chilling melodrama such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

The acting is, in general, a pain. Hopkins rants, glowers and hurls himself around like a heat-seeking missile, but his character never adds up to anything coherent. Gooding is, if possible, worse. His favourite mannerisms – pouty chin thrust upward, a righteous, trembling tear always threatening to fall – lend themselves irresistibly to comedy, but appear merely risible in a high-power, dramatic context.

Few films flee the mind as swiftly as Instinct.

MORE Turtletaub: Phenomenon, While You Were Sleeping

© Adrian Martin July 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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