Primal Fear (film)

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.

Primal Fear
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGregory Hoblit
Produced byGary Lucchesi
Howard W. Koch, Jr.
Screenplay bySteve Shagan
Ann Biderman
Based onPrimal Fear
by William Diehl
Music byJames Newton Howard
CinematographyMichael Chapman
Edited byDavid Rosenbloom
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]

The film tells the story of a Chicago defense attorney who believes that 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.[2]


Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a Chicago defense attorney who loves the spotlight, and does everything that 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 19-year-old 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 Stampler, Vail comes to believe that his client is innocent, much to the chagrin of prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney) (who is also Vail's former lover).

As the trial begins, Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including the corrupt state's attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) recently lost millions of dollars in real estate investments due to a decision by the Archbishop not to develop on certain church-owned lands. The Archbishop secretly received numerous death threats as a result. Following a tip from a former altar boy about a videotape involving Stampler, Vail makes a search of the Archbishop's apartment and finds a VHS tape shot by Rushman that shows Stampler being forced to have sex with another teenage altar boy and a teenage girl named Linda Forbes. Vail is now in a dilemma: introducing this evidence would make Stampler more sympathetic to the jury, but it would also give him a motive for the murder, of 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.” "Roy" confesses to the murder of the Archbishop, and threatens Vail. When this incident is over Stampler once again becomes passive and shy, and appears to have no recollection of the personality switch - what he calls having "lost time." Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), the psychiatrist examining Stampler who witnessed the entire event, is convinced that he has dissociative identity disorder, caused by years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his father and Archbishop Rushman, respectively. Vail does not want to hear this, because he knows that he cannot enter an insanity plea during an ongoing trial.

Vail slowly sets up a confrontation in court by dropping hints about the Archbishop's abusive tendencies, as well as Stampler's multiple personalities. He also has the sex tape delivered to Venable, knowing that she will realize who sent it—since she is under intense pressure from both Shaughnessy and her boss Bud Yancy (Terry O'Quinn) to deliver a guilty verdict at any cost—and will use it as proof of motive.

At the climax, Vail puts Stampler on the witness stand and gently questions him about the sexual abuse he suffered at Rushman's hands. He also introduces evidence that Shaughnessy and Yancy had covered up evidence of Rushman molesting another young man. After Venable questions him harshly during cross-examination, 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 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 for allowing Rushman’s crimes to come to public light.

Vail visits Stampler in his cell to tell him of the dismissal. Stampler claims to have no recollection of what happened in the courtroom, having again "lost time." However, 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 had faked multiple personality disorder. No longer stuttering, he brags about having murdered Rushman, as well as Linda, his girlfriend. When Vail asks if there ever was a "Roy", Stampler replies that "there never was an 'Aaron.'" Stunned and disillusioned, Vail walks away and leaves the courthouse as Stampler taunts him from his cell.



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


Primal Fear received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 75% positive rating based on reviews from 44 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".[3]Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned a score of 58 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[4]

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."[5] 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.[6]

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)

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

See also


  1. Primal Fear (1996). Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
  2. Golden Globe Awards for 'Primal Fear' Retrieved 2017-05-09.
  3. Primal Fear Movie Reviews, Pictures. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
  4. Primal Fear
  5. Janet Maslin (April 3, 1996). "A Murdered Archbishop, Lawyers In Armani". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-24.
  6. Roger Ebert (April 5, 1996). "Primal Fear 1996". Retrieved 2018-11-14.
  7. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  8. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
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