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Primal Fear (1996)

2:28 | Trailer
An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.


Gregory Hoblit


William Diehl (novel), Steve Shagan (screenplay) | 1 more credit »
622 ( 230)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 10 wins & 11 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Richard Gere ... Martin Vail
Laura Linney ... Janet Venable
John Mahoney ... Shaughnessy
Alfre Woodard ... Shoat
Frances McDormand ... Molly
Edward Norton ... Aaron / Roy
Terry O'Quinn ... Yancy
Andre Braugher ... Goodman
Steven Bauer ... Pinero
Joe Spano ... Stenner
Tony Plana ... Martinez
Stanley Anderson ... Rushman
Maura Tierney ... Naomi
Jon Seda ... Alex
Reg Rogers ... Connerman


When a young man, Aaron, is charged with the horrific murder of Archbishop Rushman, hot-shot Chicago lawyer Martin Vail takes on his defense at no charge. Aaron was a homeless street kid before he was taken in by the Archbishop. He's shy and speaks with a stammer. Vail is convinced that Aaron is innocent but after discovering a video that shows Aaron may have had good reason to want the Archbishop dead, he begins to question that conclusion. When Aaron lashes out at the psychologist examining him another personality, Roy, is revealed. With the trial already underway, Vail cannot change Aaron plea and so has to find a way to introduce his client's condition. Aaron has something of a surprise for him as well. Written by garykmcd

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Don't believe everything you see... See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

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

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »





English | Spanish

Release Date:

3 April 1996 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Iskonski strah See more »


Box Office


$30,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$9,871,222, 7 April 1996

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby Digital



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Andre Braugher, who plays a Chicago Private Investigator in this film, played a New York cop four years later in Frequency (2000), which was also directed by Gregory Hoblit. See more »


(at around 24 mins) On film sets, it is common practice to mark a bottle of water with your initials so that it doesn't get lost amidst the sea of other half empty bottles of water on set, especially if you're the PA or AD tasked with babysitting an actor's water. When Martin walks into his living room to watch the news report about Aaron's arrest, he's carrying a bottle of water that is clearly marked with the initial R. See more »


[first lines]
[while getting dressed as Naomi helps him]
Martin Vail: 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?
Martin Vail: If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you wanna get fucked, go to court.
See more »


Featured in The 69th Annual Academy Awards (1997) See more »


Canção Do Mar
by Frederico de Brito & Ferrer Trindade
Performed by Dulce Pontes
Courtesy of BMG Ariola Musik GmbH / Movieplay Portuguesa S.A.
See more »

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User Reviews

Primal Gere
8 December 2006 | by dfranzen70See all my reviews

A beloved archbishop is brutally murdered, and an altar boy (Edward Norton) is seen fleeing the scene, covered in blood. All evidence seems to point to the boy as the culprit. A stereotypical Richard Gere/Tom Cruise character (played by Richard Gere), a hot-shot, high-powered, ruthless attorney, decides to go for even more fame and fortune and defend the boy.

Everyone in the city, nay, the universe believes Aaron Stampler is responsible for the slaying, which of course isn't just a cold-blooded mow-down; no, it's also mutilation, as numbers were carved into the archbishop's chest and his eyes were gouged out. But Martin Vail (Gere) believes he can get his client cleared of all charges; his thoughts on Stampler's actual guilt, he thinks, are largely irrelevant.

Opposing Vail as the prosecuting attorney is an ex-flame, Janet Venable, played by Laura Linney. (Side question: Has anyone seen Laura Linney and Joan Allen in the same room?) Oh sure, of course she's an ex-flame, because otherwise it'd be tougher to build up sexual tension between the two lawyers, which you apparently must have in courtroom dramas nowadays. The character of Venable seems to exist basically as a foil to Vail; she stomps about angrily, trying to assert herself as a woman lawyer while under the constant threat of job endangerment while somehow avoiding the incredible, awesome charms of Vail himself. I'm sure it was tough.

Vail's gotta find a way to give the jury a reasonable doubt. At his service he has trusty employees played by Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney, but there's only so much they can do. Just when Vail thinks he's succeeding, he's smacked over the head with reality; in other words, like most any other courtroom drama you've ever seen. Will Vail prevail? Did Stampler do it? Well, there IS a twist to the movie; two of them, actually. The first comes a little more than an hour into the movie, after an analysis by a shrink (Frances McDormand); the second, naturally, comes in the waning minutes of the film. Neither is Earth-shattering, and you might even be able to see the second one coming from a few miles away.

On the plus side, Gere seems to be having plenty of fun. I know, it's such an unusual role for him, the know-everything Superman who's just sooooo much better than anyone else and doesn't mind letting people know. Quite a departure from his other roles as a know-it-all cadet (An Officer and a Gentleman), a know-it-all stockbroker (Pretty Woman), and a know-it-all reporter (Runaway Bride). Still and all, he turns in an engaging, appealing performance. It's not like he'll knock your socks off with his emoting; it's more like he's just kind of fun to watch. Linney, who's very talented, does a good job as well, although she would get an eerily similar role in 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose (reviewed on this site recently). In that film, she was the defense attorney who was trying to assert herself as a woman attorney while under the constant threat of job endangerment. Both movies had the theme of priests in peril; here, it's a murdered archbishop who might not have been an innocent anyway, and in the Emily Rose it's a priest accused of murder by neglect. Well, at least Linney's not being typecast.

Probably the best aspect of the movie, though, is the emergence of Norton as a powerful on-screen presence. This was his first movie, but you'd never know it by his work here. He's not tentative, he's shifty, perfecting essaying his character's plight and innocence. A strong indication of things to come, as it turned out, as he's become one of America's finest thespians.

Overall, Primal Fear is a decent yarn carried by strong performances, but the plot twists are nothing to write home about.

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