Primal Fear (film)

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Primal Fear
Primal Fear (1996 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Produced by Gary Lucchesi
Howard W. Koch, Jr.
Screenplay by Steve Shagan
Ann Biderman
Based on Primal Fear 
by William Diehl
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Michael Chapman
Edited by David Rosenbloom
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • April 3, 1996 (1996-04-03)
Running time
130 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $30 million
Box office $102,616,183[1]

Primal Fear is a 1996 American neo-noir crime-thriller film, based on William Diehl's 1993 novel of the same name and directed by Gregory Hoblit.

The film tells the story of Chicago defense attorney who believes his altar boy client is not guilty of murdering an influential Catholic Archbishop.

Primal Fear was a box office success and earned mostly positive reviews, with Edward Norton making a strong showing in his film debut. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture.[citation needed]


Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a Chicago defense attorney who loves the public spotlight and does everything he can to get his high-profile clients acquitted on legal technicalities. One day, he sees a news report about the arrest of Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a young altar boy from Kentucky 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.

During his meetings at the county jail with Aaron, Vail comes to believe that his client is 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 State's 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 is 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" who confesses to the murder of the Archbishop and throws Vail against a wall of his jail cell. When this incident is over, Aaron's personality re-emerges and appears to have no recollection of the personality switch. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), the psychiatrist examining Aaron, is convinced that he suffers from multiple personality disorder caused by years of abuse at the hands of his father. Vail does not want to hear this, because he knows 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. 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.

Vail puts Stampler on the witness stand and gently questions him about his troubled dealings with the Archbishop and all about the sexual abuse that the Archbishop put him through. During cross-examination, after Venable questions him harshly for several minutes, 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 losing the case and allowing the Archbishop's crimes, which both the Catholic Church and the city council had been trying to hide for the past ten years, to come to public light.

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". 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 fakes multiple personality disorder. No longer stuttering, he brags about having murdered Archbishop Rushman for the sexual abuse inflicted upon him, as well as Linda. Stunned and disillusioned at how he was fooled and manipulated by his own client, Vail walks away with Stampler taunting him from his cell.



Primal Fear received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 74% positive rating on based on reviews from 43 critics, with an average score of 6.7 out of 10. The site's consensus states "A straightforward, entertaining thriller with a crackerjack performance by Edward Norton".[2]

According to Janet Maslin, the film has a "good deal of surface charm", but "the story relies on an overload of tangential subplots to keep it looking busy."[3] 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." Ebert awarded Primal Fear three-and-a-half stars out of a possible four, 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 Edward Norton for offering a "completely convincing" portrayal.

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
Academy Award Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Top Box Office Films James Newton Howard Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)
Edward Norton Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Nominated
Casting Society of America Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama Deborah Aquila
Jane Shannon-Smith
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated
Most Promising Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)
Florida Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)
Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)
MTV Movie Awards Best Villain Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)
3rd place
Satellite Award Best DVD Extras Primal Fear - Hard Evidence Edition Nominated
Saturn Award Best Supporting Actor Edward Norton Nominated
Society of Texas Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt)
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor
(also for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Everyone Says I Love You)

American Film Institute recognition:

See also[edit]


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