Looking back at Primal Fear and the dangers of using mental illness for villainous plot twists
Depicting mental illness at its most extreme paints an ugly picture of what living with it is actually like
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
The end of Primal Fear comes with a series of twists. After being accused of murdering an archbishop, 19-year-old Aaron (Edward Norton) is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Claiming to be suffering from dissociative personality disorder, he says the murder was committed by Roy — an aggressive, violent, terrifying persona into whom Aaron transforms as a means of self-defence. But the revelation? It was all a performance.
Aaron, the soft-spoken, stuttering teenager, was merely a character used to cover up the murders of both the archbishop and his girlfriend, whom he had killed after being sexually abused by them. His lawyer Martin Vail (played by Richard Gere) asks him in shock if there was ever even a Roy — and he responds by saying that there was never an Aaron.
As big a hit as it was, Primal Fear found its way into the decade's knack for whittling mental illness down to its most simplified — and damaging. Examining this film 25 years after its 1996 release immediately brings to light some big issues, but especially the way mental health was often used as a plot device without respecting or explaining it. Over the decade, moviemakers seemed almost obsessed with using mental health to add a superficial sense of depth to their narrative. And in doing so, they failed to responsibly illuminate the circumstances that can lead to certain illnesses or their symptoms. Mental illness was the star, but it played into stereotypes and caricatures, and mostly existed as a means to achieve Academy Award-worthy performances.
That said, films like Primal Fear and others from the era did seem to work hard to depict mental health in more gripping, complex lights — and some really did pull it off. Take, for example, a movie I rented weekly in grade nine: Girl, Interrupted, which used Susanna Kayson's memoir as a means of humanizing mental illness to remind us that real people exist behind the labels, and that each person is complex and worth giving a shit about. In fact, even lighter films like Cruel Intentions and Center Stage dealt with issues like depression, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders, which proved how pervasive mental illness tends to be, and how it can affect even the most affluent and successful (an obvious revelation now, but totally shocking 20 years ago).
But the reason those films resonate in a positive sense is because they didn't use mental health as a shock tactic. On the other hand, the mid-90s brought the rise of movies like Primal Fear and Casino, which magnified antisocial personality disorder (a diagnosis that tends to be swapped for sociopathy or psychopathy) but did so in the most violent sense. Single White Female tackled obsessive behaviours, but made it seem like a disorder that exists only in extremes. The Crush did the same, but tapped into Lolita energy to tell the fictional tale of a 14-year-old girl (played by Alicia Silverstone) who becomes obsessed with a grown-ass male journalist. (Kind of like Fatal Attraction, but worse.) And Fight Club delivered unto us another Norton movie in which he played someone with a split personality.
The thing is, these movies weren't bad or poorly acted. (Well, The Crush is bananas, but that's an essay unto itself.) The problem is that they sensationalized mental illness in a way that can be harmful by using it as a plot device used to increase narrative tension. We're not given a backstory or explanation of the illnesses themselves, so we can't fully understand them, and we certainly can't understand or normalize medication, therapy, and the work it takes to live in recovery. These are all tales of mental illness taken to the brink. And while extreme situations do exist, as someone who has her own grab bag of mental health issues, believe me when I tell you that many are simply just tedious or merely horrible, fine, or boring as hell — no a-ha moment, no twists or turns. Just life, man.
Unlike these movies, in most cases in real life, mental illness is not the fodder for villainy. It can certainly fuel hurtful or harmful behaviour, but a massive challenge is the mundanity. It's exhausting to go to doctor's appointments. It's hard to try new medications. It's tough and painful to work with a therapist to create helpful coping mechanisms. It takes work, and it isn't easy. But managing these things becomes part of your normal everyday life.
And that's what's lacking from most mental health movies (and discourse) of the 1990s. Instead, they double downed and made mental illness an excuse to paint those dealing with it as dangerous, manipulative, or largely untrustworthy — and the effects of that cannot be underscored enough. By associating mental illness with extreme, sensationalized examples, it becomes demonized and makes viewers conflicted about empathizing with those characters. Anyone can be bad in almost any circumstances, but movies that point to mental illness as grounds for distrust and apathy send a dangerous message.
Frustratingly, Primal Fear roots itself in the real effects of trauma as we learn Aaron is the victim of sexual abuse, which the prosecution claims is the motive for him murdering the man responsible. But instead of examining the coping mechanisms survivors undertake to work through assault, the film reveals Aaron to have been lying about his dissociative disorder. The viewers' empathy? Sympathy? Understanding? Eroded, because Aaron's big reveal paints him as both a victim and a perpetrator. We learn that "Aaron" never existed at all, but the thing is: personality disorders most certainly do. So by proxy, they're painted as villainous, too.
The optimistic part of me would like to give credit to the cinematic predecessors that sparked grown-up conversations about mental health, especially since performances like Norton's are captivating, convincing, and certainly draw in a crowd. But is that enough? Did movies that exploited mental health disorders justify the films that arose from the ashes of these efforts? Or are they just damaging?
While extreme situations do exist, as someone who has her own grab bag of mental health issues, believe me when I tell you that many are simply just tedious or merely horrible, fine, or boring as hell — no a-ha moment, no twists or turns.- Anne T. Donahue
Watching a movie like Primal Fear now, I realize that for so long we could have been doing better. That filmmakers merely had to take a harder look at the intricacies of mental health diagnoses and treat them with the sensitivity they deserve. That there still would've been plenty of material for actors chomping at the bit for an Oscar nomination without using abuse as the jumping off point for faking a particular response to trauma.
Of course, this perspective comes with the knowledge that instead of accepting just any mental health narrative in cinema, we now expect more. In fact, it's almost easy to feel smug, to brag about how far we've come and all we've learned. But we might look back 25 years from now and be forced to reconcile the mistakes we're still making with sensationalizing mental illness onscreen. Because there's always room to improve when it comes to mental health discourse. And while we may be getting better, we still have a ways to go.