Primal Fear (film)

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Primal Fear
Primal Fear (1996 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGregory Hoblit
Screenplay by
Based onPrimal Fear
by William Diehl
Produced by
CinematographyMichael Chapman
Edited byDavid Rosenbloom
Music byJames Newton Howard
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 3, 1996 (1996-04-03)
Running time
130 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$30 million
Box office$102.6 million[1]

Primal Fear is a 1996 American legal thriller film directed by Gregory Hoblit, based on William Diehl's 1993 novel of the same name, and written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman. It stars Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton in his film debut. The film revolves around a Chicago defense attorney who believes that his altar boy client is not guilty of murdering an influential Catholic archbishop.

The film was a box office success and received positive reviews, with Norton's breakthrough performance earning critical praise. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture.[2]


Martin Vail is a Chicago defense attorney, who loves the spotlight on winning acquittals for high-profile clients on legal technicalities. He meets Janet Venable, a former lover and prosecutor, who rejects his advances. Meanwhile, Archbishop Rushman, a beloved figure and head of Chicago's Catholic diocese, is ambushed and killed by Aaron Stampler, a 19-year-old altar boy from Kentucky, who is arrested by the police. Vail meets with Aaron in prison and offers to defend him pro bono. Aaron reveals that he had admired the archbishop. Vail believes that Aaron is innocent, being meek and with a severe stutter. Venable is assigned to prosecute him for capital murder.

As the trial begins, Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including the corrupt state's attorney, John Shaughnessy, recently lost millions in real-estate investments, due to Rushman's decision to not develop church-owned land. Following a tip from Alex, a former altar boy, about a videotape involving Aaron, Vail steals the VHS cassette from the crime scene. The tape shows the archbishop forcing Aaron, his girlfriend Linda and another altar boy to engage in sexual acts. When Vail confronts Aaron and accuses him of having lied, he breaks down crying and uses his short name Roy, a violent sociopath without a stutter. He confesses to the archbishop's death and becomes physically violent. He becomes passive and shy and with no recollection of the personality switch.

Molly Arrington, the neuropsychologist examining Aaron, is convinced that he has dissociative identity disorder, caused by years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his father and Rushman. Vail is troubled by this information, because he cannot enter an insanity plea in an ongoing trial. He decides whether to introduce the evidence that might elicit sympathy from the jury for Aaron, but could provide the motive that Venable cannot establish. He has the videotape anonymously delivered to the prosecution, knowing that she will realize who had sent it, as she is under intense pressure to deliver a guilty verdict and will use the tape as a proof of motive.

In the trial, Vail calls Aaron to the witness stand and questions him about the sexual abuse he had suffered at Rushman's hands. He introduces the evidence that Shaughnessy had covered it up and Rushman had molested another man. During Venable's harsh questioning and cross-examination, Aaron threatens to kill her, but he is subdued and returned to prison. The judge informs Vail and Venable that she intends to dismiss the jury in favor of a bench trial, and will declare Aaron not guilty by reason of insanity, remanding him to a psychiatric hospital. Venable is fired for losing the case and for allowing Rushman's crimes to be publicly exposed, but it is implied that she will resume her relationship with Vail.

Vail visits Aaron in prison to inform him of the dismissal. Aaron claims to have no recollection of his violent reaction in the courtroom, but as Vail is leaving, he slips by asking him about Venable. When Vail confronts Aaron, he reveals that he had faked the personality disorder. No longer stuttering, he brags about killing Rushman and Linda. When Vail asks him if there was ever a Roy, he replies "there was never an Aaron". Stunned and disillusioned, Vail leaves the courthouse, as Aaron taunts him from his cell.


Several Chicago television news personalities appear in cameos as themselves as they deliver reports about the case, including WLS's Diann Burns and Linda Yu, WBBM-TV's Mary Ann Childers, Lester Holt and Jon Duncanson and WGN-TV's Bob Jordan and Randy Salerno.


The soundtrack includes the Portuguese fado song "Canção do Mar" sung by Dulce Pontes.


Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 77% based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10. The site's critics consensus reads: "Primal Fear is a straightforward, yet entertaining thriller elevated by a crackerjack performance from Edward Norton."[3] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, lists the film with a weighted average score of 46/100 based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews."[4] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore awarded the film an average grade of B+ on an A+-to-F scale.[5]

Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film has a "good deal of surface charm" but "the story relies on an overload of tangential subplots to keep it looking busy."[6] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded Primal Fear three and a half stars, writing that "the plot is as good as crime procedurals get, but the movie is really better than its plot because of the three-dimensional characters." Ebert described Gere's performance as one of the best in his career, praised Linney for rising above what might have been a stock character and applauded Norton for offering a "completely convincing" portrayal.[7]

The film spent three weekends at the top of the U.S. box office.[1]


Norton's depiction of Aaron Stampler earned him multiple awards and nominations.

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
20/20 Awards Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated [8]
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated [9]
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards Top Box Office Films James Newton Howard Won [8]
Awards Circuit Community Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Edward Norton Runner-up [8]
Honorable Mentions Gregory Hoblit Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Won [10]
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Nominated [11]
Casting Society of America Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Casting – Drama Deborah Aquila and Jane Shannon-Smith Nominated [12]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated [13]
Most Promising Actor Won
Critics Choice Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated [14]
Florida Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [15]
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Won [16]
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [17]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [18]
MTV Movie Awards Best Villain Nominated [19]
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor 3rd Place [20]
Online Film & Television Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [21]
Satellite Awards Best DVD Extras Primal Fear – Hard Evidence Edition Nominated [22]
Saturn Awards Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated [23]
Society of Texas Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [24]
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Won [25]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Primal Fear (1996). Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
  2. ^ Golden Globe Awards for 'Primal Fear' Retrieved 2017-05-09.
  3. ^ "Primal Fear (1996)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 31, 2022.
  4. ^ "Primal Fear Reviews". Metacritic.
  5. ^ "PRIMAL FEAR (1996) B+". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on 2018-12-20.
  6. ^ Maslin, Janet (April 3, 1996). "A Murdered Archbishop, Lawyers In Armani". The New York Times. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 5, 1996). "Primal Fear 1996". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved November 14, 2018 – via
  8. ^ a b c "Primal Fear – Awards". IMDb. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  9. ^ "The 69th Academy Awards (1997) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on November 9, 2014. Retrieved October 23, 2011.
  10. ^ "BSFC Winners 1990s". Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  11. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1997". BAFTA. 1997. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  12. ^ "Nominees/Winners". Casting Society of America. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  13. ^ "1996 - 9th Annual Chicago Film Critics Awards". Chicago Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on December 23, 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  14. ^ "The BFCA Critics' Choice Awards :: 1996". Broadcast Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on December 12, 2008.
  15. ^ "1996 FFCC Award Winners". June 3, 2021. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  16. ^ "Primal Fear – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  17. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1990-99". Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  18. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (16 December 1996). "Los Angeles Critics Honor 'Secrets and Lies'". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  19. ^ Richmond, Ray (April 18, 1997). "Bard Tops MTV List". Variety. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  20. ^ "New Honors for 'Breaking the Waves'". Los Angeles Times. 6 January 1997. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  21. ^ "1st Annual Film Awards (1996)". Online Film & Television Association. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  22. ^ "2009 | Categories | International Press Academy". International Press Academy. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  23. ^ 23rd Saturn Awards at IMDb. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  24. ^ Baumgartner, Marjorie (December 27, 1996). "Fargo, You Betcha; Society of Texas Film Critics Announce Awards". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved December 16, 2010.
  25. ^ "SEFCA 1996 Winners". Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  26. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  27. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  28. ^ "Ajay Devgn's character in Deewangee inspired my role in Red: Krushna ..."

External links[edit]