Primal Fear (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Gregory Hoblit|
|Produced by||Gary Lucchesi
Howard W. Koch, Jr.
|Screenplay by||Steve Shagan
|Based on||Primal Fear
by William Diehl
|Music by||James Newton Howard|
|Editing by||David Rosenbloom|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||130 minutes|
Primal Fear is a 1996 American neo-noir crime and thriller film directed by Gregory Hoblit and starring Richard Gere, Edward Norton and Laura Linney. The film tells the story of a defense attorney, Martin Vail (Gere), who defends an altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Norton), charged with the murder of a Catholic archbishop, and his ensuing case against prosecutor Janet Venable (Linney). The movie is an adaptation of William Diehl's 1993 novel of the same name. Norton's role in the film received multiple accolades, including a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Primal Fear is the first theatrical film for television director Gregory Hoblit, who has directed episodes of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue for producer Steven Bochco. It was also Edward Norton's first feature film.
Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a prominent Chicago defense attorney who loves the public spotlight and does everything he can to get his high-paying clients acquitted on legal technicalities. One day, Vail sees a news report about the arrest of Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a young altar boy with a severe stutter, who is accused of brutally murdering the beloved Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson). Vail jumps at the chance to represent the young man pro-bono.
At first, Vail is interested primarily in the publicity that the case will bring. During his meetings at the county jail with Aaron, however, Vail comes to believe that his client is truly innocent, much to the chagrin of the prosecutor (and Vail's former lover), Janet Venable (Laura Linney).
As the murder trial begins, Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including the corrupt District Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), have lost millions of dollars in real estate investments due to a decision by the Archbishop not to develop on certain church lands. The Archbishop received numerous death threats as a result. Vail makes a search of the Archbishop's apartment and finds a videotape of Stampler being forced to perform in a sexual act with another altar boy and a girl named Linda (Azalea Davila). Vail is now in a bind: Introducing this evidence would make Stampler more sympathetic to the jury, but it would also give his client a motive for the murder, which Venable has been unable to establish.
When Vail confronts his client and accuses him of having lied, Stampler breaks down crying and suddenly transforms into a new persona: a violent sociopath who calls himself "Roy". "Roy" confesses to the murder of the Archbishop, and throws Vail against a wall of his jail cell. When this incident is over, Aaron becomes his old self and appears to have no recollection of the personality switch. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), the psychiatrist examining Aaron, is convinced that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder caused by years of abuse at the hands of his father. Vail does not want to hear this, knowing that he cannot enter an insanity plea during an ongoing trial.
Vail sets up a confrontation in court by dropping hints about the Archbishop's pedophilia, as well as Stampler's multiple personalities. While searching for Linda, Vail finds her dead body in a vacant lot, but there are no clues or evidence to link Aaron to her murder. He also has the sex tape delivered to Venable, knowing she will realize who sent it and - since she is under intense pressure from both Shaughnessy and her boss Bud Yancy (Terry O'Quinn) to deliver a guilty verdict - will use it as proof of motive.
At the climax, Vail puts Stampler on the witness stand and gently questions him about his troubled dealings with the Archbishop. During cross-examination, after Venable questions him harshly, Stampler turns into "Roy" in open court and attacks her, threatening to snap her neck if anyone comes near him. He is subdued by courthouse marshals and rushed back to his holding cell.
The judge (Alfre Woodard) dismisses the jury in favor of a bench trial and then finds Stampler not guilty by reason of insanity, remanding him to a maximum security mental hospital. Venable is fired for allowing the Archbishop's crimes, which both the Church and the city council had been trying to hide, to come to light.
In the final scene, Vail visits Stampler in his cell to tell him of the dismissal. Stampler says he recalls nothing of what happened in the courtroom, having again "lost time". However, just as Vail is leaving, Stampler asks him to "tell Miss Venable I hope her neck is okay," which he could not have been able to remember if he had "lost time". When Vail confronts him, Stampler reveals that he has been pretending to be insane the whole time. No longer stuttering, he brags about having murdered Archbishop Rushman, as well as Linda. When Vail says, "So there never was a Roy," Stampler replies, "There never was an Aaron, counselor." A stunned and disillusioned Vail walks away, with Stampler taunting him from his cell.
- Richard Gere as Martin Vail
- Laura Linney as Janet Venable
- John Mahoney as John Shaughnessy
- Alfre Woodard as Judge Shoat
- Frances McDormand as Dr. Molly Arrington
- Edward Norton as Aaron Stampler
- Terry O'Quinn as Bud Yancy
- Andre Braugher as Tommy Goodman
- Steven Bauer as Joey Pinero
- Joe Spano as Abel Stenner
- Tony Plana as Martinez
- Stanley Anderson as Archbishop Rushman
- Maura Tierney as Naomi Chance
- Jon Seda as Alex
- Kenneth Tigar as Weil
Psychologist Richard Gartner reported in 1999 that Primal Fear was one of only two feature films of the late 1990s to feature male-male sex as a theme (the other film was the 1998 Danish drama The Celebration).
Primal Fear garnered positive reviews from critics, earning a 74% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. According to Janet Maslin, the film has a "good deal of surface charm", but that the film is "pared down to a farfetched plot and paper-thin motives, [while] the story relies on an overload of tangential subplots to keep it looking busy." Roger Ebert wrote "the plot is as good as crime procedurals get, but the movie is really better than its plot because of the three-dimensional characters," awarding it three-and-a-half stars.
The film spent three weekends at the top of the U.S. box office.
Edward Norton's depiction of Aaron Stampler garnered him multiple awards and nominations. Norton won:
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (won for Primal Fear as well as his roles in Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt)
- Boston Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Supporting Actor (won for Primal Fear as well as his roles in Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt)
- Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Actor (but lost to Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Best Supporting Actor)
- Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
Norton was nominated for
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton (lost to Cuba Gooding, Jr., who won for his role in Jerry Maguire)
- British Academy Film Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (lost to Paul Scofield depiction of Judge Thomas Danforth in The Crucible)
- National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor (lost to co-winners Martin Donovan and Tony Shalhoub, for their roles in The Portrait of a Lady and Big Night, respectively)
- MTV Movie Award for Best Villain (lost to Jim Carrey's portrayal of the title character in The Cable Guy)
American Film Institute recognition:
See also 
- Primal Fear (1996). Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
- Gartner, Richard. 1999. "Cinematic Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization". Gender and Psychoanalysis (1999), Volume 4:253-28.
- Primal Fear Movie Reviews, Pictures. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
- Janet Maslin (April 3, 1996). "A Murdered Archbishop, Lawyers In Armani". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-24.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
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- Primal Fear at the Internet Movie Database
- Primal Fear at Rotten Tomatoes
- Primal Fear at Metacritic
- Primal Fear at Box Office Mojo