Friday, June 4, 1999

Wild at heart

Movie: Instinct

Posted on Fri, Jun 4, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

If a brilliant anthropologist were to spend years studying the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, would he eventually reject humankind and be accepted as family by his newfound furry friends? When danger, in the form of rifle-toting rangers, intruded on this odd paradise, would the once-distinguished professor protect his adoptive relatives and go on a rampage? Would the guy, excuse the pun, go ape?

That's the scenario explored in "Instinct," an intriguing if uneven drama bolstered by the considerable star power of two Oscar-winning actors. Anthony Hopkins is Ethan Powell, the supposed madman, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is Theo Caulder, the University of Miami psychiatrist with the plum but dangerous assignment of freeing the scientist from the mental torture.

Hopkins played an entirely different kind of killer in "The Silence of the Lambs," but it's difficult not to think of his work as the sadistic Hannibal Lecter while watching Instinct. Powell, like Lecter, seems likely to wreak havoc at any moment if provoked.

Powell, en route to the psychiatric unit of a prison in South Florida, loses control at an airport. He knocks around his captors and plows down bystanders, and his mania only subsides when he catches a glimpse of his daughter (Maura Tierney) eagerly awaiting her father's return.

Gooding's Caulder uses a combination of psychotherapy and common sense to pierce the thicket of emotions that separates the patient from his doctor and -- it's hoped -- a cure. "Can you follow me?" asks Powell. "Yes, yes, I'll follow," replies Caulder, initially overeager but soon made cautious by the prisoner's propensity for using a sharpened pencil to attack whatever flesh is handy.

It's on to the misty mountaintops and lush jungles of Rwanda (actually, Jamaica), the site of what Powell describes as his veritable re-birth. "I lived as humans lived 10,000 years ago," he tells an awestruck Caulder. "You find peace, kinship, harmony and even safety."

None of those qualities describe his new digs, whose vast population includes mentally disturbed patients regularly overmedicated by a burnt-out staff psychiatrist (George Dzundza). Powell's attempt to escape from his tortured psyche and environment makes for an affecting story.


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