Edward Norton received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear.
For me to describe and review this performance I must reveal the spoilers around this performance as the revelations in this performance are pivotal to the performance. Edward Norton actually is not a favorite actor of mine, but I must admit when he is good he is really good which is the case in this film. Although you can say what you want about the film it most certainly is worth watching for Edward Norton's performance as the altar boy accused of murder.
When we first see him Aaron is nothing but a scared boy who seems in a very bad situation that he barely seems understand. Norton has the apparent innocence down perfectly. He has a small little stutter, and such a modest demeanor that it simply seems impossible that he could possibly have murdered anyone. When he says that he did not murder the Archbishop he allows you to believe him because of the genuine innocence that Norton portrays in his performance.
The thing though is Aaron is not innocent at all. He is in fact a very much troubled young man as seen when he is being analyzed by a psychologist. In these scenes Norton cleverly portrays Aaron's reactions. He answers most of the questions with his normal boyish innocence, putting up the right degree of reluctance to talk about darker more personal aspects of himself, but when pressured he shows an entirely different side of Aaron that he basically inserts at the right question.
The truth seems to come out when it is revealed that Aaron not only murdered the Archbishop but he has a split personality one being the modest unknowing innocent Aaron and the other being the brutal and vicious Roy. Norton is absolutely believable as both personalities which makes this revelation believable. When Roy Norton shows a chilling psychopathic man who do whatever it takes for self preservation as well as personal gain.
The thing is though there is no split personality after all there is only one person Aaron who's true personality is that of the violent Roy. This final twist really could have been unbelievable but Norton completely sells it. It is amazingly effective becuase of how believable he was as the altar boy, and even in his portrayal of split personality, but what really makes it effective is his final scene where he makes the revelation. Norton brilliant in how he shows the complete egotistical glee of the psychopath he has in his accomplishment. The absolute control he has in this scene succeeds in creating the entire path of the character, as well as making Aaron one very memorable villain.