Film Review / Primal Fear (1996)


Primal Fear may well be remembered primarily for Edward Norton's outstanding debut performance. It is a film I've seen a good amount of times since its release, and still enjoy watching even though I know the big reveal, so I think that's generally a good sign. But I do have a huge amount of admiration for Norton, and I love this performance almost as much as his turn in American History X.


Based on the novel of the same name by William Diehl, the story revolves around spotlight-hogging hotshot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), who flaunts legal technicalities to get his clients acquitted, whether they're guilty or not. And then, the temptation of representing an altar-boy accused of murdering his bishop is too much to pass up. So he takes the case pro-bono.


Enter Aaron Stampler, the stuttering, nervous country-boy who can hardly form a sentence, suffers from blackouts, and who Vail feels could not have held the murder weapon. Though nobody else thinks Stampler is innocent, not his own legal team, nor his opposition in the form of the excellent Laura Linney's prosecution attorney Janet Venable (and old colleague and old flame of Vail). Still, Vail soldiers on and finds himself plunging into this shy young man's trauma, until the point he meets Roy, Stampler's other self.


Edward Norton was nominated for a host of awards with his performance as Stampler's dual personalities, Aaron and Roy, and rightly deserved. I think I recall reading that on the screen test the casting team weren't actually certain her didn't have multiple personality disorder... He's one of those actors that can pull off extreme vulnerability and psychotic charm within moments of each other, and so I'm not surprised he caused the above reaction. But Richard Gere (though mostly doing Richard Gere, which isn't a bad thing) is also perfectly watchable in it, and his performance strengthens once Stampler's alter ego, Roy, appears.


Vail's gradual softening to Aaron, believing utterly that this other more assertive and violent personality is the protector of Aaron, shows great chemistry between Gere and Norton. Vail's push in the courtroom to force Roy out in public to win his case is wonderful and the final showdown, when Vail wins the case and finds out which personality is actually real is just fantastic, gets me every time.


It's film worth watching if only for Edward Norton's engrossing turn as Stampler, and his great chemistry with Richard Gere, but the addition of Laura Linney, Maura Tierney and Frances McDormand who all turn up in one degree or another, you're certain to get some great performances on top of the well-reported ones.