Februrary 14, 2013

Primal Fear (1996)
Starring Edward Norton, Edward Norton, and Edward Norton

Comments:   You know how I wrote a big tribute to Kevin Kline yesterday, and I praised how he dominates pretty much movie he has ever been in?  Well since today is Valentine's Day I figured I would do the exact same thing for my wife's favorite actor.  Yes, my Valentine's Day gift to my wife is a tribute to her all time favorite actor, Edward Norton.  

And of course you can't even begin to praise Edward Norton without talking about the very first movie he ever did, Primal Fear.

Have you ever seen Primal Fear?  If you have, you know exactly why I picked this movie to write about.  Because Primal Fear is a "holy shit!" movie if ever there was one.  It is one of those movies that if you don't know anything about it, if you walk into it completely unaware of what it is and what to expect from it, it is going to hit you so hard that your jaw will practically drop to the floor.  And I should know, because that was me the first time I saw it in 1998.

This is going to be a tough review for me to write, because as much as I want to talk about Primal Fear, as much as I want to talk about what makes it so unforgettable and awesome, unfortunately even delving into what makes it so awesome will ruin it for a person who has never seen it before.  And I know that there are people out there who actually have never seen it before.  Trust me, they might not admit it, but I know they are out there.

(time passes)

(more time passes)

Okay, I thought about it for a little bit, and here is how I will describe this movie to a person who has never seen it before.

Primal Fear is the story of a choir boy from Chicago named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton).  He doesn't really have any sort of a family, he is just a timid transient young man who has sort of been adopted by the Catholic Church.  He is quite shy, he stutters quite a bit, and really the only thing in his life is pretty much the church.  He lives in a type of Catholic boys school along with the archbishop and with a bunch of other altar boys in Chicago.

Aaron Stampler

Well one day the archbishop (the head of the church) in Chicago is murdered.  He is brutally killed.  And, uh, I will spare you the details.  Suffice it to say that it isn't very pretty.

And who is the only suspect in the archbishop's murder?

Yep, you guessed it.  It is the last person who was seen with him.  The boy who was found running from the crime scene, frightened and covered in blood.

The police immediately arrest a timid and frightened and terrified young Aaron Stampler.

Aaron is arrested with the archbishop's blood all over him

And really, there is your movie.  Aaron Stampler is arrested for the archbishop's murder, and hotshot unscrupulous defense lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is called in to the case to defend him.  And the rest of the movie is Richard Gere trying to prove that there is no way this timid little stuttering child could have possibly done it.

And, uh, it is really good.

Martin Vail meeting this scared kid who claims he doesn't remember what happened

Again, I don't want to give too much of the movie away, since this is one of those movies that sort of demands that you experience it for yourself, but let me just talk about Edward Norton.   Let us talk about one of the finest acting performances in any movie that has ever been made, shall we?

Poor Aaron

First off, I had no idea who Edward Norton was when he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997.  His name just sort of randomly popped up in the 1997 Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor, and I had no idea who the f he was or why the f anyone should care about him.  And besides, wasn't Edward Norton the next door neighbor on the Honeymooners??  Right from the start I was kind of confused who this guy even was.  Apparently Primal Fear was his very first movie, and since I never actually -saw- the movie, it seemed like he just kind of showed up out of nowhere and suddenly everyone was talking about him.

Here is the only thing I knew about Primal Fear and Edward Norton when this movie came out in the theater.  This will show you how much of a splash (or lack of a splash) this movie made when it originally came out.

All I knew about Primal Fear at the time was that Norm MacDonald made a joke about it one night on Saturday Night Live.  That was it.  That was all I knew about the movie.  All I knew was that it had been number one at the box office (for about a week), I knew that I starred Richard Gere, and I knew that Norm MacDonald made a joke suggesting that Richard Gere might still be putting gerbils in his ass.  Which was an old 80's urban legend that... ah... I really don't want to talk about.

The enemy of PETA

So anyway, that was it.  I knew that Primal Fear was a movie.  And I knew that it was a Richard Gere movie.  And I knew that (historically) no one ever really gives a shit about a Richard Gere movie.  And that was about as far as it went.  I figured that Primal Fear was one of those movies that would be around for two weeks and then it would just sort of disappear like every other non-Pretty-Woman Richard Gere movie.

Richard Gere explaining to Aaron why Richard Gere movies suck

And then the award nominations started coming in.

Edward Norton.  Edward Norton.  Edward Norton.


Edward Norton.  Edward Norton.  The Amazing Edward Norton.

Um, what?  Who the fuck is Edward Norton?

Hi there

Edward Norton was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1997 for Primal Fear.  And I still had no idea who he was.  I wasn't entirely sure if he was even young or old.  Or black or white.  Or vegetable or mineral.  He was this random name who just sort of showed up out of nowhere.

Edward Norton lost Best Supporting Actor that year to Cuba Gooding Jr. (from Jerry Maguire), and honestly, I couldn't have cared less.  Well actually I guess I DID care, because I liked Jerry Maguire.  I was happy for Rod Tidwell.  But in terms of Edward Norton (whoever he was)?  Meh.  Whatever.  

At that point I wasn't entirely convinced he wasn't just some joke name that somebody had stolen from the Honeymooners.

And then, a couple of months later, somebody suggested I watch Primal Fear.  "It's awesome," my friend told me.  "It's a courtroom movie, but it's really good."  "Yeah I know it has Richard Gere in it, but you need to watch it for the other guy."

Okay, okay.  Fine, whatever.  Twist my arm.

I'm not really a fan of courtroom movies, but I rented Primal Fear sometime in 1998 and I brought it home to show my wife Diana.  And we sat there to see what all the damn hype was about.

And oh baby 

To say that we were transfixed by this movie the first time we saw it would be a gross, gross understatement.  I mean, people are transfixed by a traffic accident.  This movie was like seeing the birth of a baby unicorn.

I remember after the movie, my wife just sat there with this look on her face like she had just seen her new favorite actor.  And I will never forget what she said afterwards.   She turned to me and said, "I don't care what I just saw.  I just want to give that Aaron kid a hug."

One day my wife is going to leave me for this grinning stuttering idiot.  I have yet to make peace with this.

Primal Fear is one of those movies that has a ton of fans out there.  It is very well known as an underrated and completely memorable and awesome movie.  I mean, dude, this is the movie that made Edward Norton a star.  It got him an Academy Award nomination.  There may have never been a better debut movie in the history of Hollywood.  

I know I am kind of stretching the definition of "underloved" by including a movie with as many fans as this one on my countdown.  But I don't care.  Remember how I said that Dave should be loved simply because it was "a Kevin Kline movie", and because there just aren't enough of those.  Well whatever I said about Kevin Kline, it also applies to Edward Norton.  He is plain and simple the single best actor of his generation.  And what is funny is that as amazing he was in Primal Fear, you could argue that he was even BETTER a couple of years later in American History X.  But I suppose that is a different argument for a different entry.

If you look up Primal Fear on any movie website, you will see that it is "a courtroom drama starring Richard Gere."  But fuck that.  This is an Edward Norton movie.  I mean, yeah Richard Gere is good in it too, and Laura Linney is in it, and she is good too.  And heck, Margie (Frances McDormand) from Fargo is even in it, and she is good in everything.  

But none of them are Edward Norton.

Really, that is the single best compliment I could give to this movie.  Margie Gunderson from Fargo is in Primal Fear, and you barely even remember her. And Margie is like one of the top five most memorable characters of the 90's.  But again, Margie is Margie, and even she is no Aaron Stampler.

The Stampmeister

If you have never watched Primal Fear before, watch it.  You are going to be amazed.  If you have ever wondered why people are such big fans of Edward Norton, if you have ever wondered why people will watch anything he is ever in, well now you will know.  There are very few actors out there that could make my wife move Johnny Depp down to #2 on her all time favorites list.  Edward "I'm Aaron Stampler and I could use a hug" Norton is really the only one who could have done that.

To think that this guy has never won an Academy Award (and Helen Hunt actually HAS won one!) is kind of a joke.


Oh, and if you are already a fan of Primal Fear?  Well I'm suh-suh-suh-sorry Mr. Vail maybe you should go wuh-wuh-wuh-watch it again.  Even when you nuh-nuh-nuh-know what is going to happen it is st-st-still pretty awesome.

Hates tongue twisters

P.S.  My apologies to all gerbils.

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Primal Fear:

Just watch it - 26 January 2002

If you have seen the usual suspects, you know that if someone tells you what happens it ruins the WHOLE movie.

So stop reading.. and watch.

Meet Edward Norton - 25 November 2000
Outstanding thriller on par with "The Usual Suspects", "Primal Fear" is an impressive film about one lawyer's (Richard Gere) yearning for the spotlight. He gets his wish after an archbishop is brutally murdered in Chicago. It appears that choir boy Edward Norton (in his first film, Oscar-nominated) is the killer, but there is more to this case than meets the eye. In the end, Gere is going to learn that what he thinks he wants (fame and fortune) is not all that great because of what he has had to go through to get there. "Primal Fear" was one of the more interesting films of 1996, but was ignored by almost everyone. Richard Gere does some of his best work ever. Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, and Frances McDormand are all good in supporting roles. However, it is Edward Norton who proved to be the discovery of the 1990s. He keeps the audience on their toes and he adds depth and emotion to a film that would have looked much different if he had not been in it.

Primal Fear - 31 July 2010
And the Oscar goes too....... Edward Norton!

Oh wait I forgot. Ed Norton got robbed by Cuba Gooding Jr. Anyway, not only is Primal Fear Ed Norton's first full-feature length film, but it's his best. American History X and Fight Club are not far behind though.

But as I was saying, if you enjoy Edward Norton movies, you will LOVE this! It's pretty much The Edward Norton Show. He runs this movie.

Richard Gere is also very good in this. But I don't feel he deserves any special recognition. But I do think he should make more movies like this (instead of all those chick flicks and crap).

This movie definitely should have been nominated for Best Picture, it's definitely one of the best films of the year, if not THE best.

I am kind of sad that they didn't make the book sequels after this, but whatever.

Wow... - 30 April 1999
I just finished watching this movie for the fifth time, and you know what? The ending still blows me away. This is THE best suspense film I have ever seen. It may be somewhat slow at times, but man does the end ever make it worthwhile.

The birth of a star and the resurrection of another - 8 May 2004
It's not often that viewers get a chance to watch a star being born - that a talented unknown actor's performance that is so spectacular it leads to the A-list in one role is rare: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise to name a recent few. But Edward Norton's turn as the "defendant/victim" in Primal Fear is one of those "Wow" moments that leaves the audience salivating for his next performance. In this feature debut, Norton outdistances his role, as does Richard Gere, in a resurrection no less impressive than Norton's star-making turn. Heretofore, Gere has specialized in assorted intelligent professional cad roles. Here, he gets a chance to inhabit one that not only wears his dubious character on his sleeve, but wears it, drives it, drinks it... revels in it. Yeah, sure somewhere there's a heart of gold, but like his client, the layers on top serve him better, and the heart of gold is tarnished. Gere is at his peak, comfortably, cheerfully inhabiting the role.

Laura Linney deserves extra credit for often being the ice-queen foil which propels the two male characters' development; her own character is rather one- dimensional, but she herself squeezes as much dazzle as she can from it. Even though everyone else obviously falls for whatever Gere's Vail purrs into their ears, it's merely enough time for Linney's Janet to get a drag on her ubiquitous cigarette; another step in what will (hopefully) someday be film's love affair with her. Wasted, sadly, are fine character actors like John Mahoney, Steven Bauer, Maura Tierney & Andre Braugher who could have lit up the screen had they not been handed scripts with generic character stereotypes.

See it to watch the ascension of Norton and Gere.

So that was the debut of a genius - 9 September 2006
I can't help going back to this movie again and again just to see Norton. He did an amazing job in the transformation between the two roles. The innocent look of Aaron, the Kentucky folk accent and the stammer would make your heart broken for him, while the ferocious outburst of Roy, the viciousness in his eyes and the wicked humor made him one of most unforgettable villains in film history. Well, so that was the debut of a genius' career. Despite the final twist, the movie proper would need much more work to improve the storyline and the dynamics. However, because of Norton, it had a permanent place in the film history. As a matter of fact, it was solely a Norton movie.

wow - 22 April 2001
The art of the good suspense film often seems lost, but Primal Fear manages to grasp that art and milk it for all it's worth. For start to finish, it offers a brand of "hold your breath"-ness that really grabs you and squeezes.

As an actor, Edward Norton (Aaron/Roy) never ceases to amaze me. He's different in everything I see him in, and this is no exception. To see him morph from mild-mannered alter boy Aaron into terrorizing Roy and back again is something that makes you think, "If I were in Richard Gere's place, I'd be afraid for my life." Definitely a show-stealing performance.

Wow... - 28 June 2005
I thought 'Primal Fear' was going great when the first little twist hit. I wasn't expecting it, and having that first fascinating twist sprung on me really made the movie just a little better. Edward Norton's Aaron was an absolutely adorable altar boy with a Kentucky drawl and stutter that just made you love him more, and then he was Roy, angry, brash and violent.

I don't even have words to express how much I liked this movie. The courtroom scenes weren't boring and drawn out and just when you think it's all resolved and justice has been done, 'Primal Fear' turns completely around and you are left thinking "Oh my God... what the... AWESOME!" I seriously urge Edward Norton fans, psychological thriller fans and film fans in general to rent (or buy) this film.

* My favorite trivia about Primal Fear:

* This is Edward Norton's motion picture debut.

* Edward Norton ad-libbed much of his dialogue and his actions in the movie.  In particular, when he shoves Vail (Richard Gere) against the prison cell wall, Gere's shocked reaction is genuine because that was not planned.

* According to the Blu-ray behind-the-scenes information, it was Edward Norton's idea to stutter as Aaron, as it appeared nowhere in the original book or script.

* When trying out for the role of the altar boy, Edward Norton went into the audition in character, complete with stutters and all, and this won his role.

* 2,100 actors auditioned for the role of Aaron Stampler - Matt Damon was one of them.

* Both Wil Wheaton and Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the part of Aaron Stempler. Wheaton turned down the role because he didn't want to put off his acting school and when his manager urged him to take the role anyway he told him "It is like Luke Skywalker when Yoda told him not to go and save his friends but to stay on Dagobah and learn to be a Jedi instead. Luke didn't listen to him and that's why he never became true Jedi master." Later Wil Wheaton regretted turning this role down, saying that this was a crucial factor why his career never got to be a successful one.

* According to the Blu-ray behind the scenes information, the ending exposition was running over 6 pages, and the writers realized that would take far too long. Richard Gere and Edward Norton began to improv with it - encouraged by the director and writer - and pared the scene down to less than 2 pages with a much crisper ending.

* My favorite scene in Primal Fear:

Few things in movie history can top a really good slow clap.

Primal Fear at the IMDB

Primal Fear at Wikipedia

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