What I Learned From “Instinct”

I had so much fun telling you what I learned from The Edge that I’ve picked another post-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins thriller to glean morals from. Instinct is a movie that – get this – pits a plucky young professional against a brilliant, violent man. Released in 1999, this was Sir Anthony’s fifth “I have bills to pay” movie in a row (after Meet Joe Black, The Mask of Zorro, Amistad and The Edge). He plays Ethan Powell, a genius psychologist who lives off the grid with a pack of gorillas for two years and is arrested for murder in Rwanda. Powell seems to act more like ape than man, never speaking and lashing out violently. Until the ambitious psychologist Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) makes it his mission to bring Powell out of his monkey trance, and the movie really starts to blow.

Lesson One: Psychology is super easy.

The first 20 minutes of Instinct frames Hopkins as a live wire, somebody lost to civilization for so long that seasoned psychological minds think he’s a lost cause. The Rwandan government wanted to hang him. When his daughter came to visit him, he didn’t even look at her. He beat the shit out of some people at the airport. Then Gooding, Jr. shows up to counsel Hopkins in prison, and he pretty much gets him talking right away. Take note, armchair shrinks: When there’s a psychopathic ape man in front of you, just look wide-eyed and frightened, and ask him questions about his family. He’ll perk right up.

Lesson Two: Prison guards are horrible, horrible people.

The U.S. prison that Hopkins is transferred to is called Harmony Bay, which is of course underfunded, falling apart and staffed by assholes. One of Instinct’s major story lines is a game that the guards play with the prisoners, giving each one a card from a deck, and only allowing the prisoner who gets the ace of diamonds to receive a half-hour of outdoor time, something all of them are technically entitled to. What the prison has to gain by this stupid and cruel system is never explained, but it does set things up for a painfully melodramatic sequence that sees Gooding, Jr. bucking the establishment by putting the prisoners’ names in a box, and then selecting one at random. You know, like a hero would do.

Lesson 3: Prisoners are wonderful, wonderful people.

You can’t establish the fact that prison employees are evil without prisoners that one can sympathize with. Hence, even though we hear plenty about how Harmony Bay is overflowing with dangerously psychotic criminals, we don’t hear much at all about what they did to get locked up in such a terrible place. Which gives director John Turtletaub the freedom to paint them as a rag-tag bunch of eccentrics just waiting to be psychologically rescued (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except with serial killers). Oh yeah, and we eventually learn that Hopkins didn’t really kill anybody – his gorilla pals were shot by Rwandan soldiers, but he called himself a killer because he felt guilty about it. You know why it’s so hard to find a sensitive man that you want to spend the rest of your life with? Because they’re all serving life sentences.

Lesson 4: Living with animals gives you super strength.

Because Instinct is actually a cloudy glop of environmentalist dogma instead of a movie that asks interesting questions about our own primality, the filmmakers couldn’t be subtle with the very few Hopkins-as-crazy-ape-man scenes. So when he kicks people’s asses in airports and prisons, he doesn’t just beat them – he physically overpowers them with the ease of a superhero. How could gorillas give this ability to a senior citizen in chains? It doesn’t matter, because the movie isn’t really about that kind of thing anyway.

Lesson 5: Ponytails signify recovery.

I don’t want to let Turtletaub off the hook, but Gooding, Jr.’s wet noodle of a performance makes me want to give the director some slack. The actor portrays Caulder as a whimpering snob, a person not cut out to counsel the mentally disturbed. So Turtletaub has to resort to things like wig manipulation to make us believe that Caulder is indeed helping Powell get better – after, like, four sessions, Powell begins to pull back his matted nest of psycho hair into a slick ponytail. Which means that he’s recovering his sanity, because it takes a civilized man to wear the scrunchie of self-discovery.

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