In the opening minutes of Instinct, Anthony Hopkins appears in handcuffs, with long, stringy gray hair, a bushy beard, and a gleam of murder in his eye. For a moment, it looks as if Charlie Manson has finally been let out of prison, and, lest we doubt the savagery of the specimen before us, he wastes no time going on a rampage — running, leaping, gnashing his teeth, attacking his captors like a wild animal. Who is this berserker in bondage? His name is Ethan Powell, and he’s a brilliant anthropology professor who journeyed to the lush jungles of Rwanda to study mountain gorillas and, over the course of two years, effectively became one of them. At first, he hung out in the grass, silently observing the magnificent silverbacked beasts. Then, he joined their clan, reverting to his ancestral self and ultimately killing two men.
Ah, but wait a minute. This learned, academic killer, with his surging homicidal drive, his eagerness to express his will with a chomp and a growl — doesn’t he remind you of someone? Isn’t he a bit like… Dr. Hannibal Lecter?
Instinct is a marketing hook attempting to pass itself off as a movie. Powell, with a lot of Lecterish media fanfare, is placed in captivity, and, like Lecter, he’s consigned to a dingy snake-pit cellblock. Who will plumb his depths? Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a daring young psychiatric resident, wants to try. Given the job of evaluating him, Caulder sets up his tape recorder opposite Powell, ready to probe his psyche. Gooding seems a less authoritative actor with each performance (he needs to tone down that high, eager-to-please voice), and huge swatches of the movie consist of little more than Powell recalling his experiences in Africa as Caulder listens intently. We’re meant to share the young shrink’s rapt, awed-by-the-beast fascination.
The nuttiest thing about Instinct is that the director, Jon Turteltaub, and the screenwriter, Gerald DiPego, who first collaborated on that goofy New Age Hallmark card Phenomenon (1996), seem to sense just how dull their central story is. They keep sewing on bits and pieces from other movies, introducing, for example, a prison mental ward full of flamboyantly theatrical patients right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (it’s like the island of misfit character actors), as well as a quick-fix sentimental climax cribbed from The Shawshank Redemption. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie: a feel-good heart-of-darkness save-the-gorillas weepie. There isn’t a sound instinct on screen. D