Primal Fear (film)
|Directed by||Gregory Hoblit|
|Based on||Primal Fear|
by William Diehl
|Edited by||David Rosenbloom|
|Music by||James Newton Howard|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$102.6 million|
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.
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.
- Richard Gere as defense attorney Martin Vail
- Edward Norton as defendant Aaron Stampler / Roy
- Laura Linney as prosecutor Janet Venable
- John Mahoney as state's attorney Shaughnessy
- Alfre Woodard as Judge Miriam Shoat
- Frances McDormand as Dr Molly Arrington
- Terry O'Quinn as Yancy
- Andre Braugher as Vail's investigator Tommy Goodman
- Steven Bauer as streetwise neighbor Joe Pinero
- Joe Spano as Stenner
- Tony Plana as Martinez
- Azelea Davila as victim Linda
- Stanley Anderson as Archbishop Rushman
- Maura Tierney as Vail's assistant Naomi
- Jon Seda as former altar boy Alex
- Reg Rogers as Jack Connerman
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.
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." 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." Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore awarded the film an average grade of B+ on an A+-to-F scale.
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." 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.
Norton's depiction of Aaron Stampler earned him multiple awards and nominations.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Aaron Stampler – Nominated Villain
- 2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
- Nominated Courtroom Drama Film
- Mental illness in films
- Trial movies
- Plot twist
- Deewangee (2002), a Hindi film influenced by Primal fear.
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- "Ajay Devgn's character in Deewangee inspired my role in Red: Krushna ..."