• Audrey Walter

Primal Fear: Hard Carry by Edward Norton

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

A More Accurate Portrayal of DID

Primal Fear is a 1996 movie directed by Gregory Hoblit. It most notably stars Richard Gere, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand. This movie caught my attention while scrolling through my Instagram feed. It was a screenshot of Edward Norton as Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of killing a well-liked bishop.

My first thought was that I’ve never seen Edward Norton look so young. My second thought was that I had never even heard of the movie before, despite many comments hailing it as a great movie. I figured it was because the movie touches on the Catholic church’s problem with sexual abuse. I consider Edward Norton to be a great actor and very underrated, so I thought I’d give the movie a shot.

Upon researching the film, I noticed it was actually Norton’s acting debut. This intrigued me even more. I wanted to see how well he could act at such an early stage in his career.

And wow, can he act.

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Spoilers Ahead!

In this movie, we follow Martin Vail (Richard Gere), a defense attorney who decides to take on a case that’s gaining traction in the media. This case involves the murder of Bishop Rushman, who is a large figure in the community. Following the murder, a group of policemen on the scene chase after a young boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), covered in the bishop’s blood. It seems obvious who the killer is, but we all know that with more than an hour and thirty minutes left that there’s much more to the story at hand.

Martin Vail decides to take on the case pro bono, to Aaron’s shock. Martin is only interested in gaining notoriety for such a big case, yet begins to have a soft spot for Aaron. Aaron is meek and seemingly harmless. He has a stutter as well, which to me makes him even more defenseless. He was an altar boy for the bishop, so automatically I assumed there was some sexual abuse going on. Well, I was correct, but I’ll get to that later.

This film has one thing that makes it more interesting than the average crime movie: multiple personality disorder. Nowadays, experts call it dissociative identity disorder, or DID. In order for these crime movies to be a hit, they have to have some special elements to them.

Edward Norton stole the show because of this. Aaron Stampler has such a shy personality and way of speaking that Norton conveyed wonderfully. But Aaron was not the only role he played.

Martin Vail coaching Aaron Stampler before court.

Because of his disorder, he developed a second personality named Roy, the complete opposite of Aaron. Roy is mean, violent, and reactionary. Frances McDormand plays Dr. Molly Arrington, who is Aaron’s doctor throughout the movie. She comes to the conclusion that Aaron developed DID because of his abusive father, who Roy was modeled after.

This kind of made me think of the movie Split (2017) in which the main antagonist struggles with several personalities. If I compare the two, I’d say Primal Fear has a more accurate portrayal of DID.

Aaron Stampler switches to Roy because of certain triggers and experiences headaches when he switches. This is the norm for people who have this disorder, rather than switching personalities on command like in Split. It’s less exciting, sure, but I prefer the accuracy. Edward Norton did a great job of differentiating Aaron and Roy with his voice, facial expressions, and actions. It’s quite amazing what actors can do! His performance blew Richard Gere’s acting out of the water.

Although Richard Gere is a seasoned actor, I didn’t find anything that special about him in this movie. He played the role given to him, so I’ll give him props for that. Martin Vail just didn’t have much depth compared to Aaron Stampler. I can’t fault him for material he didn’t write.

There was a part of the movie that absolutely infuriated me, though. While in the courtroom, Martin Vail and Janet Venable (Laura Linney) do your average movie courtroom scene. I couldn’t believe how many times Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard) reprimanded Martin, yet let Janet off the hook for badgering. The judge even fined him for contempt of court and struck many witness statements from the testimony.

Janet got away with badgering the witness several times and her farfetched objections were always listened to. I didn’t get the animosity between the judge and Martin but it seems there’s some kind of backstory the viewers don’t know about.

She clearly dislikes him.

Throughout this two-hour-long movie, I felt there were some strange cuts here and there. It would go from a courtroom proceeding to Martin talking to someone to the courtroom again. It felt disjointed and unneeded. But it didn’t bother me too much as I still could pay attention to the main point.

The pacing was a bit drab and I felt a bit impatient. But I’d say it was worth it for the bombshell ending. I almost wish this movie was more of a character study because of how great Edward Norton’s character was.

And I couldn’t get over the hilarious 80s guitar music that played as if this was some cheesy noir film. The music took me out of it sometimes, which goes to show how important a movie’s score is.

At the end of the movie, Martin Vail gets Aaron an insanity plea so he can get the treatment he needs. Martin does this by allowing Janet to egg Aaron on, eventually bringing out Roy and getting him angry. Roy puts Janet in a headlock and makes the courtroom go crazy. We realize that Aaron did actually kill the bishop, but he wasn’t aware at the time since he blacked out during the murder. Roy was the personality that committed the murder.

After the verdict, Martin goes to visit Aaron in celebration. Aaron thanks him and they have a heart to heart with one another. As Martin leaves his cell, he tells Aaron that if he needs any help that he can call him. Aaron thanks him yet again and also tells Martin to give his apology to Janet for putting her in a headlock. This line is shocking to both Martin and the viewer, since earlier in the movie it’s shown that Aaron can’t remember anything that Roy does.

Martin questions him, asking him how he can remember since he blacks out when Roy comes out. Aaron quickly turns into Roy and starts maniacally laughing at Martin. At this point, I’m sure the audience is as confused as Martin.

Aaron's transformation into Roy.

Roy tells him that he assumed Martin already knew that he was somewhat faking it, but Martin admits he believed in Aaron. And to my shock, Roy says, “There was never an Aaron.” This is when the audience can form an opinion on their own. Was Aaron really faking his meek personality? This could be a possibility. He might not be as shy and innocent as he portrays himself.

But I think something else happened.

With DID, sometimes trauma can cause personalities to break off or to join/combine. With Aaron, the abuse of his father was traumatic enough to cause another personality to form, which was Roy. Yet when Bishop Rushman subjected him to sexual abuse, this trauma caused his two personalities to integrate. His psyche creates one personality, which is primarily Roy's personality.

People with DID integrate personalities to cope with trauma and to protect themselves. Since Aaron has had two men in his life abuse him, he created Roy as a form of protection and then Roy took over his whole psyche. In the end, this makes Martin Vail wonder if he even did the right thing. And this moral dilemma is what makes the ending of this movie so great.

My Verdict?

Overall, this movie was a tad bland. When the focus wasn’t on Edward Norton, I felt pretty bored and the length of the movie started to show. Richard Gere floated into the background of the movie and wasn’t very impressive.

However, the ending of this movie is what makes watching it worthwhile. Seeing how great of an actor Norton is enjoyable in itself. I’d recommend this movie to casual movie-goers and anyone who wants to see Edward Norton’s beginnings.

I give Primal Fear a 5/10.

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