Primal Fear (1996)

Edward Norton wowed audiences this past year with his supporting role in Birdman, one that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and, at times in the movie, stole the show, even from lead actor nominee Michael Keaton. It was an impressive, but not necessarily unexpected, performance from Norton. He has established himself over the past two decades as a great actor. But how did he get to this point? Where did he start? Two words: Primal Fear.

Truth be told, Norton’s start and end points in his journey have had identical impacts on audiences. On both ends of his career—in his first movie and his most recent one—he has absolutely captivated audiences with his performance. It is his first performance that seems more impressive, though, for the sheer fact that no one saw it coming.

Norton burst onto the acting scene in as dramatic and impressive a way as possible as the altar boy Aaron Stampler. It’s hard to prove greatness as an actor with one debut role, but Norton truly belonged on the big-screen as the multidimensional character who, as it turns out, is really two characters: the mild-mannered, stuttering Aaron and the rough-around-the-edges, vengeful Roy.

Though it was obviously the first time Norton tackled a two-headed role, it would not be the last, with his character in American History X as both racist (in the flashbacks) and reformed (in the present), in The Incredible Hulk as both Bruce Banner and the Hulk (actually not far off from Aaron/Roy, besides the whole green thing, of course), and in Fight Club, though he does get some help from Brad Pitt in that one.

Norton’s ability to realistically juggle both sides in all these movies has been crucial, especially in Primal Fear. Standing trial for the murder of a beloved archbishop and represented by the self-absorbed, but successful attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), Norton must ultimately convince the audience–and, to a degree, Vail–that it was not Aaron who did the heinous crime, but Roy.

Norton is so good as Aaron/Roy that he convinces everyone—the audience, Vail, his psychiatrist (Frances McDormand)—that he suffers from multiple personality disorder. Then, it all adds up neatly; Roy, not Aaron, killed the archbishop because the archbishop forced him to perform demeaning sexual acts on camera for his own perverted enjoyment.

Once Roy makes an appearance in court—as it seems Vail hopes for and even tries to instigate—and attacks prosecuting attorney Venable (Laura Linney) the judge has no choice but to declare a mistrial and, as a result of insanity, give Aaron/Roy treatment in lieu of jail time.

Vail has won again, but this victory seems to mean more to him than all the others, which is important. He says at the start of the film that he doesn’t care if his client is innocent. Either way, he has a job to do. In this case, though, he really cares about vindicating Aaron. He believes what he is doing is truly good, and not just for the money; he is saving the life of a helpless, stuttering altar boy.

It’s actually a nice change in character for Vail, to believe in something so noble, until it comes back to haunt him, in a big way. And this leads to the best scene in the whole movie. This is where Primal Fear goes from decent legal movie to a truly memorable one with a great ending.

As I mentioned before, everything has come together nicely, but not too perfectly to warrant suspicion on the part of the viewer. It’s a success story for Vail and Aaron, a good ending, and we can all go home happy, especially Vail.

And he starts to walk home happy, only to have Norton as Aaron deliver the most chilling line of the movie, stuttering (as always), “will you t-tell Miss Venable I’m sorry? Tell her I hope her neck is okay.” Through those two perfectly delivered, stuttered sentences, everything changes for the audience, and, more importantly, for Vail.

There is no turning back from the truth now, and in the ensuing back-and-forth between attorney and client Norton reveals that there never was an Aaron, only a Roy. The good Vail thought he had done was all for naught.

Simultaneously, the viewer realizes that Norton’s dual-character performance is now even more impressive. He is a guy playing a guy playing two guys, but is really only one guy—à la Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder.

The final scene is a lot to take in, which is part of what makes it so great. It all ties back together in a different way. The underlined passage in The Scarlet Letter, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another for the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true,” takes on a whole new meaning.

Before, that seemed to apply solely to the archbishop, a revered figure to the public, while a greedy pervert to a select group of others (a subplot that certainly is not ridiculous as we have unfortunately seen over the years). In the end, it is clear that this passage applies as much to Aaron/Roy, the one who underlined it, as it ever did to the archbishop. By underlining the passage Aaron leaves a subtle hint to his true nature, and a not so-subtle one to the priest’s true nature. Only the latter is picked up during the trial. Thus, it ends in the kind of blissful frustration found in so many movies.

As the viewer, you can’t help but be happy to be duped and impressed that Aaron/Roy could pull it off. Of course, Aaron/ Roy could never have pulled it off in such a convincing way without Norton.

Maybe I’m a sucker for great acting, particularly in debut performances. Maybe I’m a sucker for legal movies (My Cousin Vinny, anyone?). And maybe I’m a sucker for great twist endings.

So sue me if I loved Primal Fear despite some shortcomings, but I’ll be hiring Martin Vail as my lead attorney and Edward Norton as my acting coach to get me off scot-free.