After an altar boy is accused of murder, a defense attorney struggles with winning the case and finding the truth in Primal Fear.
Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a hotshot Chicago defense attorney that will do anything to be in the public eye and also to get his high-paying clients acquitted. Vail sees that an altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) has been accused of brutally killing an archbishop and is on the run from police. Vail decides to take up Stampler’s case pro-bono, knowing the publicity will be worth it. Aaron, a soft spoken southern boy seems completely incapable of murder and says he had nothing to do with the archbishop’s killing, despite being found covered in his blood. He is adamant that there was a third man in the room with them that committed the crime. After interviews with a psychologist (Frances McDormand), it’s discovered that Aaron has a second personality named Roy and that Roy is who really killed the archbishop. It’s up to Vail to win the case and also find out what is really going on with Aaron/Roy.
The reason for my wanting to watch Primal Fear again came about from browsing the Internet for memorable endings to films. Primal Fear happens to be on a number of these lists and with good reason. I remembered the ending but had forgotten most of the actual plot leading up to that point and decided to rewatch this gripping thriller.
Primal Fear is the movie that brought us the enormous talent of Edward Norton front and center, it was his first major acting gig. As far as I’m concerned, Norton blows the role out of the water. He does such a tremendous job, basically shifting between two completely opposing characters, sometimes in the same scene and doesn’t miss a beat. It seems like Norton doesn’t get much praise but he’s one of the best actors in the business in my mind. I’ve always been lukewarm about Gere (though I do love me some Mothman Prophecies), but he didn’t bug me too much. Laura Linney, who plays the prosecuting attorney, is fantastic as always.
The biggest drive that Primal Fear has, however, is the story. At times it gets a bit bogged down by the legal side of things as well as some of Vail’s narcissism, but for the most part there is a driving force towards the end of the trail and the truth behind the case. It’s a film that keeps you guessing until the very end and the payoff is worth every minute. Even knowing the ending of Primal Fear doesn’t spoil the experience but it does make the slow parts of the film seem slower. If you haven’t seen Primal Fear yet and miraculously haven’t ran afoul of spoilers, check it out.
I give it 4 slackjawed Edward Nortons out of 5.