In a prison for the criminally insane, deranged anthropologist Ethan Powell is set to be examined by a bright young psychiatrist, Theo Caulder. Driven by ambition and a hunger for the truth, Caulder will eventually risk everything—even put his very life on the line—in a harrowing attempt to understand the bizarre actions of this madman.
How free are you really? Are you a liberator or a controller? What is the main purpose of a movie? To entertain and amuse in one way or another, right? In other words, captivate your attention for the span of the movie's runtime. Great movies do this PLUS something else: They inspire you and make you think; maybe even enlighten. That's the power of the art of film. "Instinct" (1999) does this, which explains my high rating. THE PLOT: Anthropologist Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) goes missing in Africa for a couple of years; when he is found living with gorillas in the wild he kills a couple of rangers and injures others. After a year in prison in Africa, where he refuses to speak, he is extradited to a Florida prison and put in the mental ward. A young psychiatrist, Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is assigned his case to see if he can get him to speak and learn what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile Powell's daughter (Maura Tierney) anticipates reconciling with her father; IF Theo can get through to him. There are some peripheral characters (Donald Sutherland), but that's the gist of the story. Some people criticize the film as a mix of "Gorillas in the Mist" and "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" with a little “The Silence of the Lambs” thrown in for good measure, but this only valid on a surface level. "Instinct" stands on its own; in fact, it's quite unique, which is a sign of greatness. The movie stands or falls on Hopkins and Cuba Jr. making their characters and their story come alive and seem real to the viewer. They succeeded for my wife and me. Within 20-30 minutes we found ourselves absorbed into the story and the characters; the film really picks up steam around the midpoint. Some people, like Roger Ebert, criticize that the film tackles too many topics or messages, but I never got this impression, nor did my wife. There are the main themes: the limitations of freedom in conventional modern society and the abuse of controllers (or "takers"); and there are a few subthemes, like the flaws of our prisons and mental institutions, as well as getting into the mind of someone else to understand their point of view (including non-humans). All of these are linked. The film never confused us or gave the impression that it cut off more than it could chew. If you appreciate films like "Grand Canyon" (1991) and "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) you'll probably value "Instinct." Some criticize one aspect of the climax, but it happens. There are documented examples in the USA and all over the world. Also, keep in mind that Powell was imprisoned in the mental ward of the prison, not the maximum security area. Is the story contrived to some degree? Of course it is; all movies are. Filmmakers have to tell a story and make their points within a limited timeframe, usually around two hours, and so there are always contrived elements, coincidences, etc. The trick is to pull it off without seeming too phony or forced, which is sometimes hard to do and it takes good actors. Thankfully, "Instinct" does a respectable job on this front, perhaps mainly because it has a few great actors, although some viewers may roll their eyes here or there. Regardless, it's in the area of ideas that "Instinct" towers above most movies. BOTTOM LINE: "Instinct" is a psychological drama/thriller that entertains but also makes you reflect and ponder: How free are we REALLY in society? Are you a giver or a taker? A blesser or an abuser? A liberator or a controller? How can you be freer? How can you escape the manipulations and shackles of others, of society, of "government"? How can you walk free of "the game"? And so much more, like the "doctor" learning from the patient and the humility it takes to learn from someone who's "under" you. The film runs 126 minutes and was shot in central Florida, Uganda and Jamaica. GRADE: A