Edward Norton is a fantastic actor. Fight Club, American History X, The Grand Budapest Hotel, hell, he even put in a great performance in The Hulk. He knows how to take a role and make it memorable.
His finest acting work though, in my opinion, was right at the beginning of his career.
It's baffling to me that Ed was only 26 when this was made. He plays a 19-year-old character convincingly considering his puppy dog looks at the time (something which still perpetuates), and pulls off a performance that even outshines his co-star Richard Gere (another brilliant actor).
Primal Fear is a courtroom drama based around the case of a young man accused of a brutal murder. On the surface he seems totally innocent and oblivious to the act, until something snaps within him and he reveals he has an entirely different personality lurking beneath that unassuming shell. Of course...that's not quite the whole story though.
Edward is perfect here. The scene in which he initially snaps is so well-acted I think you can even see how impressed Richard is in the moment. Trying to portray this kind of character is no doubt tricky. He switches modes at the snap of a finger, going from weak and unwilling to aggressive, abrasive and violent. His gentle side, Aaron is supposedly protected by his other, rougher side, Roy.
It's worth watching the following clip to see that moment again:
The boy at the start is so drastically different from the one at the end. Every single mannerism changes, and rewatching it I can spot more details like that.
I find it especially impressive when actors tackle roles like this with any degree of accuracy. Portraying that kind of inner turmoil is naturally hard if you haven't personally experienced it, and even then it must be so difficult to really explain either with actions or words. He's convincing though, and he carries that through the movie, right up until the final moments.
This is where I solidify my own opinion though. Of course, everyone will have different thoughts, some will always stand by his role in Fight Club as being his finest and I totally get that, he's phenomenal in it. However, the ending moments of Primal Fear will always be the most memorable for me.
As it turns out, Aaron and Roy being two halves of the same coin was never a reality. In fact, it's Roy himself who tells us there never was an 'Aaron' in the first place. Rather, he pretended he had this split personality in order to get off free from his charges, swapping hard jail time for more lenient treatment. He even gleefully reveals this to Marty (Richard Gere) so he can see his reaction, knowing it's too late for him to do anything about it.
That crazed look is a chilling way to end the film, and it lingers on after the fact. The sheer and drastic shift in personality, and the acting chops it took to make that happen, convinces me this was his best.
Kudos to you sir. I'm terrified.