Primal Fear (film)

Primal Fear
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 dates
  • April 1, 1996 (1996-04-01) (Los Angeles)
  • April 5, 1996 (1996-04-05) (United States)
Running time
130 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$30 million
Box office$102.6 million

Primal Fear is a 1996 American legal mystery crime thriller film directed by Gregory Hoblit, based on the 1993 novel of the same name by William Diehl, 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 follows a Chicago defense attorney who believes that his altar boy client is not guilty of murdering a Catholic archbishop.

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


Martin Vail is an arrogant Chicago defense attorney, known for his undesirable but high-profile clients, including mob boss Joey Piñero. Fond of the spotlight, Vail is profiled for a magazine cover story, and tries to rekindle a casual relationship with his former colleague, prosecutor Janet Venable.

Beloved Archbishop Rushman is savagely killed in his bedroom and his body mutilated. Aaron Stampler, a 19-year-old altar boy from Kentucky, is caught fleeing the scene covered in blood and charged with murder. Vail offers to defend him pro bono, and the meek, stuttering Aaron claims he is innocent but is prone to amnesia. Vail believes Aaron, while the state's attorney, John Shaughnessy, assigns Venable to prosecute the case and pursue the death penalty.

At Aaron's apartment, Vail's investigator Tommy Goodman is attacked by another altar boy, Alex, who flees. Neuropsychologist Dr. Molly Arrington interviews Aaron for hours about his difficult childhood, his memory lapses, and his missing girlfriend Linda. With help from Piñero, Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including Shaughnessy, lost millions in real estate investments due to Rushman's decision not to develop church-owned land. In court, a message carved into Rushman's chest is linked to a passage from The Scarlet Letter, denouncing the archbishop as "two-faced".

Vail and Goodman track down Alex, who was searching for an incriminating VHS cassette. Stealing the tape from the archbishop's closet, Vail and his team discover footage of one of many encounters filmed by the archbishop, in which he coerces the formerly homeless Aaron, Linda, and Alex to engage in sexual acts on threat of eviction from their group home. Vail angrily confronts Aaron about concealing information from him, but Aaron denies the accusations, becoming increasingly distressed as Vail continues to press him. Aaron's demeanor abruptly shifts from deferential to aggressive, and he chastises Vail for "scaring off" Aaron. This violent personality, Roy, admits to killing the archbishop but threatens Vail not to introduce the tape at trial. Suddenly, he reverts back to Aaron's docile personality, with no recollection of the episode.

Dr. Arrington concludes that Aaron has dissociative identity disorder caused by years of abuse at the hands of his father and, later, Rushman. Conflicted, Vail knows that he could acquit his client via an insanity defense, but cannot change his strategy mid-trial. He delivers the evidence anonymously to Venable, forcing her to use the tape as proof of Aaron's motive, at the risk of tarnishing the archbishop and generating sympathy for Aaron. Shaughnessy commands her to destroy the evidence, but she refuses and introduces it in court.

Piñero is discovered murdered, and Vail surprises the court by calling Shaughnessy as a witness. Vail suggests Shaughnessy resented the archbishop for stopping the $60 million land development, and accuses him of concealing previous evidence of the archbishop's sexual predation, and for being complicit in Piñero's death. Judge Shoat intervenes, striking the line of questioning from the record and fining Vail for using the courtroom as a stage for his own vendettas.

Dr. Arrington's testimony that Aaron's "body could be present at a homicide and yet his mind would be unable to recall it" is dismissed by the judge as too close to an insanity plea. Vail calls Aaron to the stand, intentionally triggering his memories of his father's abuse. Venable begins a challenging cross-examination, in which Aaron suddenly becomes Roy, screaming obscenities and choking Venable before he is subdued. The judge dismisses the jury in favor of a bench trial to declare Aaron not guilty by reason of insanity.

A shaken Venable rejects Vail's advances, and Vail informs Aaron that he will be remanded to a psychiatric hospital for treatment with a strong possibility of release. Aaron profusely thanks Vail and asks him to apologize to Venable for the injuries to her neck, leading Vail to realize that Aaron was aware of his actions during the attack. Aaron commends the attorney for his insight, then brags about having murdered Linda and Rushman without remorse and faking having multiple personalities. In disbelief, Vail declares, "There never was a Roy," but the murderer corrects him: "There never was an Aaron, Counselor." Stunned and disillusioned, Vail leaves the courthouse, but does so through a discreet back entrance to avoid the attention and publicity he once sought.


Several Chicago television news personalities made 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.


Box office

The film was released on April 5, 1996 and opened in the #1 spot, remaining there for three consecutive weeks. It grossed $56.1 million domestically and $46.5 million internationally for a total worldwide gross of $102.6 million.

Home media

The film was released to VHS and LaserDisc on October 15, 1996. On October 21, 1998, it was released to DVD.

Paramount released Primal Fear on Blu-ray on March 10, 2009. The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary track by director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquila, as well as the featurettes "Primal Fear: The Final Verdict", "Primal Fear: Star Witness-Casting Edward Norton", and "The Psychology of Guilt".


Portrait of a young Edward Norton smiling
Edward Norton's debut performance received critical acclaim, earning him the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, in addition to a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 77% based on 48 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.

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


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

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

See also

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