Primal Fear was, from a casting standpoint, a perfect storm. It was a hurricane spinning off the Atlantic coast, covering water and picking up strength. The previous year alone Richard Gere had played Lancelot, Laura Linney had explored the Congo, and Frances McDormand was a major player in the surprisingly successful Fargo. John Mahoney was, well, John Mahoney in all his greatness and Andre Braugher of Glory and The Tuskegee Airmen fame would show flashes of the tragic hero Detective Frank Pembleton from hit network drama Homicide: Live on the Streets. Primal Fear was full of actors who were riding, in one form or another, a career peak. A wave of excellent roles or performances. It was the setting for something special to happen.
That something happened to be the motion picture debut of one Edward Norton.
Primal Fear was an adaption of the novel by the same name penned by William Diehl as part of a trilogy ending with Show of Evil and Reign in Hell. As a story the movie adaptation does little to impress, relying on network television cop drama devices to unveil most of the story (director Gregory Hoblit directed Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue before taking on this project). This display allows watchers to pick up on subtle foreshadowing to guess easily what plot point will come up next, which helps give a sudden edge to the many dark twists.
A synopsis of the plot itself is straightforward enough. The city of Chicago is shaken by the murder of their recently sainted Archbishop Richard Rushman. The case for the district appears to be a slam dunk as dumb witted Aaron Stampler is found in a nearby confessional booth holding a butcher knife. He is covered in blood. Slick defense attorney Martin Vail is assigned to the case as pennance for annoying virtually every judge in city, and finds himself up against his exgirlfriend in Janet Venable, who is working the case as one last chance to prove herself to boss John Shaughnessy. While the story stays fast paced and manages to hold up its own end of the bargain in the movie, the true jewel of Primal Fear was the delivery from the ensemble cast. The performance of Norton was especially inspiring and will be the subject of the second half of the writeup.
The role of Aaron Sampler was a key element to Primal Fear. Over two thousand actors auditioned for the role, including Matt Damon. Both Wil Wheaton and Leonardo DiCaprio turned down offers for the role and production began to wonder if they would find the right man for the role.
And then a young man from Boston walked into the studio with a ballcap pulled over his eyes. Hands deep in his pockets, eyes trained on the ground, the young man introduced himself as "Eh-eh-eh-Edward Norton, suh-suh-sir." After stammering through the entire character read, and about to be dismissed by the casting committee as another no talent hack who couldn't even be bothered to deliver a clean reading, Norton removed his hat. He straightened up and stared down the committee with a scowl. "What? You just gonna sit there and let me go on all day up here, 'ac-ac-acting like a da-da-da-damned fool?' I nailed it. Why are you wasting my time? Shut down the audition, you pansies, you found your Aaron."
That isn't how it happened, but considering the performance, it isn't hard to imagine that it could have happened.
The low-down is this: Aaron Sampler was abused as a child by his father, and to protect his inner psyche he created an alter ego, a stronger version of himself to take care of business when times go rough. A warrior to step in whenever Aaron was scared, or felt threatened.
It isn't til more than half the movie is completed that we're introduced to this concept. It happens when Dr. Molly Arrington discovers a line of questioning that agitates Aaron, one about his girlfriend Linda. Molly mistakes the agitation, and ensuing headache Aaron complains of, for having been recorded, and taps the videocamera to suggest turning it off. This simple act sets Aaron off to cursing angrily at Molly. Aaron immediately returns, apologises, and asks why Molly has moved, ignorant of the past minute of action. In a later scene Vail is the one in the isolated conference room, and his aggressive questioning coaxes Aaron's alter ego, introducing himself to Vail as Roy, into the open for a prolonged exhibition which he again does not remember. This gives Vail the confidence to put Aaron up on the stand, where Venable attacks Aaron verbally and induces Roy into attacking her by leaping out of the stand.
The judge, in closed quarters, announces her decision to dismiss the jury, and sent Aaron to a mental hospital where he will be treated by the state for one month and then released to a private facility, a hands down win for Vail and his "third man" defense. Vail goes back to the courthouse jailcell to explain to Aaron that, effectively, he is going to be released and then begins to walk away.
He stops walking when he hears Aaron apologize for hurting miss Venable, an act Aaron should not have remembered, and in fact had claimed seconds before not to have remembered. He questions Aaron on the matter, and the slackjawed glaze disappears from Aaron's eyes as he mockingly applauds Vail's effort of deduction. The switch, this transformation from "Roy" being a character made up in Aaron's mind to "Aaron" being a shy scapegoat for Roy, is seamless. Norton manages to sell them as two distinct characters. More accurately, he sells them to the audience as four distinct characters - Aaron, Aaron as Roy, Roy, and Roy as Aaron. There are no gentle transitions, just articulately planned and executed tells such as headaches and tiredness. The final speech where Roy congratulates Vail for figuring everything out at the end of the movie illustrates just to what extent Norton's performance soars above the rest of the cast. As far as the success of Primal Fear was concerned, Edward Norton was the most-valuable-player-without-whom- our-team-doesn't-make-the-playoffs. He plays the lawyers, media, and courtroom as fools moments after everyone believes to have figured out what actual happend on that fateful night in the Archbishop's chambers.
It's a deadpan delivery from a cold-blooded killer that sets Vail's world on his head. After being the only person convinced of Aaron's innocence throughout the film, finding out in the very end just how wrong he was serves as a crushing blow to the man who resumes to walk away, with a haunted look on his face reflecting how Roy played him to do everything right to ensure that he could not be tried again, and that the killer would soon be walking the streets.