The Worst Fear Of All: Primal Fear

Scene Breakdown of the movie

Nothing is as it seems.

Take movies with mind-blowing plot twists. They are some of the best-loved pieces of cinema across time. The moment an engrossing film suddenly delivers a plot twist that completely turns your understanding of the entire movie on its head is one of the best ways to get viewers to think differently.

The director M. Knight Shyamalan’s cinematic signature is incorporating plot twists into his movies. Also, while several examples of his films have succeeded, others have not. The same goes for movies from other directors who sought to deliver effective plot twists to their works, only for it to fail. A big downside to being a director known for his plot twists is that, over time, audiences become accustomed and thus each succeeding plot becomes more and more predictable and less effective if not complete failures.

In the case of iconic plot twists, movies like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club or The Usual Suspects are excellent examples. Each pulls off seamless twists that work flawlessly to each of their favors respectively, to the surprise and delight of audiences.

However, as mentioned earlier, not every movie’s plot twist ends up working out as well as the director had hoped. Some even end up with sudden shifts in their tone, undoing the momentum they laid out up to the point of the reveal, that it makes an effort and atmosphere built up over the course to become utterly moot. Movies such as Signs, The Village or Savages serve as prime examples of twists going wrong.

That said, one such movie that still stands as a classic in which a plot twist gets done right is Primal Fear.

Primal Fear, made in 1996, and directed by Gregory Hoblit, follows defense attorney Martin Vail (played by Richard Gere), who only takes cases for money and prestige, as he takes on a high-profile case involving a meek, stuttering Aaron Stampler (played by newcomer Edward Norton), an altar boy accused of murdering a beloved Catholic Archbishop.

As the film progresses, and Vail tries to prove the innocence of his client, he finds himself farther and farther down the rabbit hole, where dark secrets exposed and nothing is as it seems.

A crime-thriller, the movie succeeds in using mise-en-scene with lean and effective editing to build up the suspense and leaves the viewer wondering whether or not timid, stuttering Aaron is innocent or not. For example, in the opening, a train yard chase is shown simultaneously happening as the detectives are investigating the crime scene of the Archbishop’s murder using crosscutting. The crosscutting works to connect the central plot with several principle characters.

Initially, a detective arrives at the crime scene of the Archbishop’s murder. As the camera pans from the bloody footprints to the body, the scene cuts to Aaron as multiple police officers chase him into a nearby train yard.
Then a cross-cut back to the crime scene shows the detectives rushing to the train yard after an officer rushes in to inform them of the chase going down.

The scene next cuts to Vail at a bar, live news coverage of the train yard chase happening on a nearby T.V. More cross-cuts between Aaron’s inevitable capture and Vail witnessing it on T.V. and his reaction to the news. He ends up agreeing to take Aaron’s case (but only because of the news coverage it is getting) and meets him at the courthouse, thinking the case will be open and shut.

These scenes, especially the cross-cuts between the crime scene and chase scene, and the search for Aaron at the train yard, effectively build up the suspense; making any first-time viewer wonder if Aaron will get caught, manage to escape or whether he even is guilty or merely running away in panic. Since this being an early scene, not much is still known yet about the circumstances.

Moreover, the film again makes effective use of mise-en-Scene and cinematography. In another example, in one scene, Martin Vail’s questioning of Aaron after learning of incriminating tapes owned by the Archbishop causes the latter to snap and release his alter ego, Roy. Serving as a central moment within the film’s narrative, and the director makes the most of it.

As the scene begins with Vail angrily confronting Aaron on lying to him, a tight medium shot is used as Vail as he talks to Aaron. Then, once the camera pans to Aaron as he walks over to Martin, with a close-up of his face, the younger man’s demeanor wholly and abruptly changes from timorous and stammering to violent and sociopathic, with no hint of a speech impediment to be found.

As the now aggressive and dominant Aaron steps even closer to Martin’s face, the shot becomes an extreme close-up of Aaron’s face, before panning to Martin’s and maintaining the extreme close up. After several seconds of the camera panning between Aaron and Martin in extreme close-up, the camera switches to a tight, two-shot medium-shot, before turning into a close-up of Aaron with Martin in the background.

Each of these different shots and edits achieves in conveying the atmosphere of Vail’s “tough guy” approach quickly and unexpectedly backfiring as “Roy” emerges and changes the direction of the scene.

Afterward, this new persona introduces himself as “Roy,” but not before putting a stunned Vail in his place, effectively taking charge of the room until the court-ordered psychiatrist Molly Arrington, (played by Frances McDormand), walks into the room and Aaron returns. The last part is a close up of the doctor’s face as he visibly wants to know what had happened.

This scene specifically and the one before it, with the suspense and build up to “Roy’s” emergence taking place in that small, harshly red-lit brick room was succeeding in building up until the moment of “Roy’s” entrance, even continued even past that. Over the course of this scene alone, never mind the preceding one, one can truly feel the tension that something’s about to change, coupled with the actor Norton’s, (in his debut role no less), excellent timing and mannerisms in “switching” to an entirely new persona.

This scene is one the best examples of great acting, in my opinion, with Edward Norton, really shining through in not only this scene but the whole throughout the movie. His overall acting and seamless transitions between the meek Aaron and sociopathic Roy is arguably the best thing about the film, especially considering this was his first film role, though not to knock Richard Gere or the rest of the cast of their superb talents.

Further, lastly, the last best scene of the movie comes towards the end, but for the sake of not spoiling it, I will only say that nothing is black and white, and nothing is necessary as what you thought it was.

Ultimately, this is a movie about nothing is as it seems, and someone could not be the person you thought they were. An intriguing crime-thriller with a talented cast and one of the best endings in movie interesting, this movie is one worth a watch.



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Nicole Henley

Nicole Henley

Writer of true crime, unsolved mysteries, and marvels of history. Lover of movies, books, cats, and anime.