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Primal Fear (1996)

R  |   |  Crime, Drama, Mystery  |  3 April 1996 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.7/10 from 121,045 users   Metascore: 47/100
Reviews: 239 user | 78 critic | 18 from

An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.



(novel), (screenplay), 1 more credit »
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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 10 wins & 10 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Bud Yancy
Tommy Goodman
Joey Pinero
Abel Stenner
Archbishop Rushman
Naomi Chance
Jack Connerman


Courtroom thriller about a slick, hotshot lawyer who takes the seemingly unwinnable case of a young altar boy accused of murdering an eminent catholic priest. Written by Jonathan Broxton <>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real. See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for brief grisly violence, pervasive strong language and a sex scene | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:






Release Date:

3 April 1996 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Iskonski strah  »

Box Office


$30,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

$293,515 (USA) (26 July 1996)


JPY 197,208,300 (Japan) (6 December 1996)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


When trying out for the role of the altar boy, Edward Norton went into the audition in character. Meeting with casting director Deborah Aquila, he quietly stuttered as Aaron and then suddenly turned into Roy, roughly grabbing her to the point where she was worried about her own safety. See more »


The actor portraying Joey Pinero can be seen breathing (cold breath) when his supposedly dead body is being lifted from the water. See more »


[first lines]
Marty: On my first day of law school, my professor says two things. First was; "From this day forward, when your mother tells you she loves you - get a second opinion."
Jack Connerman: [chuckles] And?
Marty: "If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you wanna get fucked, go to court."
See more »


Referenced in The Mothman Prophecies (2002) See more »


Pammy Slam
Written & Performed by Steve Porcaro
See more »

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User Reviews

Decent thriller that relies heavily on a solid cast.
10 October 2006 | by See all my reviews

Rating: ** 1/2 out of ****

Here's a film I remembered being a huge fan of back when I first saw it in theaters in '96. Seeing it again for the third time since, it doesn't quite live up to my fond memories. Aside from Edward Norton's scene-stealing performance as suspect Aaron Stampler, there's really not much about the film that separates it from most of the genre. The plot, concerning the murder of a beloved archbishop at the alleged hands of an innocent-looking altar boy and the eventual high-profile trial, is certainly rife with potential but is never executed beyond the level that's expected of a competent pulp thriller.

But credit should be given where it's due, especially the first hour of the film, which does a pretty solid job of setting up the film as an engrossing mix of murder mystery and courtroom drama. The performances are all solid, with Richard Gere providing yet another effective variation of the slick, cocky persona (this time as a "big-shot attorney") he's mastered and Laura Linney acting convincingly stressed out and aggravated by the understandably vexing situation her character's been placed in.

But with all the pieces in place in the first half, the film never quite results in the tight, suspenseful thriller we expect. The most noticeable problem is excess baggage, with the film too often straying from the case at hand and veering towards less interesting tangents. There's just too much chaff here, with subplots that include the romantic tension between Linney and Gere, the writer doing the article on Vail, and the housing development project that simply takes up too much of the movie's already overlong running time.

Equally problematic is a major plot twist halfway through which, while effective in its own right and allows the opportunity for Norton to stretch his considerable acting talent, ultimately lessens the speculative tension that these thrillers usually rely on. From that point on, most of the enjoyment is derived from Norton's performance, and though it's not quite the show-stopper I once considered it to be (probably doesn't help I just saw this flick after his absolutely incredible performance in American History X), it's still one of the better debut performances any actor has ever put forth.

It's with some relief that I can at least say the film saves its best scenes for last (the last three minutes are quite memorable), and definitely finishes things off on a high note. Primal Fear was directed by Gregory Hoblit, who's actually proved himself a pretty skillful filmmaker when it comes to crafting thrillers. This one's merely competent, no more and no less.

35 of 49 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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