Like all the great actors, Edward Norton has something that allows him to withhold something from his characters, thus maintaining an element of mystery in every performance. Primal Fear the film that made his name in 1996 and which won him the first of three Oscar nominations is emblematic in this regard. His character, Aaron Stampler, the altar-boy accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago, is full of opacities, and also allowed the young actor to play across a range of different registers, preventing the film from falling into facile oppositions of good and evil. After this auspicious debut Edward Norton was to find himself, on several occasions, playing individuals with spit personalities. One might say that Norton’s singularity consists precisely in his reliance on his physical appearance to go beyond it. The prototype of a model youth, but one ready at any moment to flip into something dangerous, is just the first layer of ambiguity that the American actor has had the skill to develop in the most diverse contexts. Norton has a way of acting that embraces improvised variations in rhythm, tone and mood. Be that a little smile after an outburst of shocking violence (American History X) or a slightly prolonged silence in a long courtroom speech (The People vs. Larry Flynt) the result is invariable: his performance always confounds expectations and tend to blindside the viewer.
There is something both perverse and salutary in this approach. His characters remind us that cinema is fiction and that performance is about making something believable. The unconditional cleaving to reality from which American cinema has found it difficult to break free, – paradoxically, the move to digital has strengthened this encroachment of realism – needs actors like Norton who are able to break through it, even if only for a moment. In a context in which imagination has given way to representation, it is all the more essential that we have actors whose personae can suggest the image is based on the idea of the double, the specter, the simulacrum; to mislead signifies not only to dupe, but also to make it understood that the earth on which we think we stand so firmly is also a con: it is in fact ever-shifting ground.
In his twenty-year career Edward Norton has performed alongside major actors (Brando, Gere, De Niro, Pitt, Keaton, Harrelson, Willis), has adapted that presence of his to a highly diverse range of styles of performance and direction; taken all together, his characters are like a map that tells us a great deal about the times we live in, an era so confused, and so ready to take the first option that presents itself, as the right one. The poker-player in Dahl’s film, the scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom, the violent neo-Nazi, the unconventional lawyer, the white-collar worker in Fight Club right up to the schizophrenic star in Birdman… Every one of these characters is, in a sense, bi-polar. Or rather, it is the reality he is confronted with that determines his bi-polarity. The characters that Norton has depicted on film tell us about a being who, just to survive, has developed a high degree of irony, who struggles to believe in reality but nevertheless always manages to seem to be surprised by it. Not all are winners: even when they have learned to navigate the rules of society, they feel a certain dissatisfaction stirring within, evidenced by the constant gleam of melancholy in his eyes, like slight fissures in the clear blue sky. They are all, in their various ways, victims of an all-encroaching reality; all, for various reasons, seem about to hit their limits.
They are like Monty, the pusher who is given a day to settle up with those who inhabit his world, before starting a long prison sentence. In this 25-hour journey, which becomes a metaphor for an existence, a city and an era, I find a great deal, indeed perhaps the very essence, if not of the actor, then of what feeds into the various characters played by Norton. Tenderness and violence, eloquence and silence, the lyricism with which the city is viewed, and the cynicism of a viewpoint that has never been innocent, caught between things and people, and a irretrievably solitary existence… At least until a new story starts the cycle off again.