Primal Fear (1996)

Viewed January 29th

A slick Chicago defense attorney takes on a case involving a murder suspect who appears to suffer from dissociative identity disorder.

Spoilers ahead...

Primal Fear was directed by a veteran of television police procedurals, most notably NYPD Blue, and, for the most part, it feels like that. The dialogue, characters, and flow of the scenes are comforting in their familiarity. Most of the story purports to take place in some gritty real world, but generally feels preposterous and in reference only to a world conjured by this type of procedural television. Also it has a bizarre red herring subplot about the Catholic Church's involvement in a real estate deal that's handled so clunkily it threatens to derail the whole thing. But what Primal Fear has going for it are two starring roles that elevate the cliches, turning them into something more mythic, and making the film's celebrated twist ending come alive in ways that run deeper than clever screenwriting craft. When Edward Norton (in his Oscar-nominated film debut) leaps between his two identities, the simpleminded Aaron and the hardboiled Roy, it feels chilling and real, he is both characters, so much so that the twist, in which it's revealed that the whole multiple personality thing is itself a performance, is surprising despite the fact that it seems like something you should have seen coming. Norton had convinced us that he really was both; we saw him there with our own eyes on the screen: this poor guy has two personalities. What also adds to the success of the twist is that Richard Gere, playing the defense attorney who knows all the moves, was also fooled. Like Norton, Gere is his character; he is the guy who stays ahead of everyone else. He's not representing this person, he obviously is that person. Again, we see it with our own eyes up there on the screen. When he can't help but grin at how Aaron doesn't know own his suit size, it seems so real and the way the two stars inhabit that scene is pitch-perfect. So when Gere is fooled, humiliated really, by Norton in the end, it turns this kind of dumb movie into something deeper.     

Also worth noting is the way the film plays two types of stardom against one another. Gere brings with him onto the screen his own mythology as this type of slick, well-dressed, in-control, potentially dangerous man. His presence on-screen is built from his performance in this film, but also the larger cinematic myth of "Richard Gere." Edward Norton, by contrast, was an almost total unknown. There was a virginal quality to his stardom which works perfectly in this film because the audience at the time of Primal Fear's release couldn't project onto the character any preexisting mythology; he's as seemingly fresh-faced as the character he plays and the audience is surprised at how complicated Norton's abilities, and, by extension, the character are. When the unknown star Edward Norton gets the best of the known star Richard Gere, it adds even more to the scenario.