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Primal Fear

Updated on May 14, 2013
aliciaharrell profile image

Alicia has been an Author, Columnist, and Reviewer for 10 years. Her success came from perseverance plus organized goal setting.

Martin Vail visits Aaron Stampler in jail. Scene from the movie "Primal Fear".
Martin Vail visits Aaron Stampler in jail. Scene from the movie "Primal Fear". | Source

Movie Review

Primal Fear , released in 1996, is definitely the kind of movie any viewer can see becoming a classic. It is one of the best murder mystery films I have viewed. The ending actually surprised me and very few mysteries have done that to this mystery lover who pays attention to all clues given.

Edward Norton, who plays Aaron Stampler the murder suspect, did an Oscar award winning performance. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Primal Fear . My personal opinion is Mr. Norton should have won the Oscar at the Academy Awards Ceremony that he was nominated for Primal Fear .

My husband agrees. This Western genre lover manly man viewer sat through the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes of Primal Fear . This is a man who normally leaves the room claiming he has better things to do if the movie runs past 1 hour and 55 minutes. His viewing all of Primal Fear was a miracle. Afterwards he said, “Wow, that kid was great. He nailed the duo-personality perfectly! I knew guys exactly like that where I used to work for the State Mental Health Department. Did he do other movies?”

I did not have the heart to mention to my husband he had already seen Edward Norton in The Italian Job and Keeping the Faith. My husband had liked Edward Norton’s roles in these even though these movies were my preference. I was surprised he did not realize this was the same actor.

Primal Fear ‘s plot first introduces wealthy well known Defense Attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) who is notorious for taking clients who have “saved up for a very rainy day” and are wealthy enough to afford his high attorney fees. Martin is an attorney who thoroughly enjoys receiving tons of publicity and deliberately takes high profile cases. He does not care who his client is or what vocation they hold. Martin Vail delivers the best defense money can purchase and is known for obtaining excellent deals through the court system for his clients.

While watching television in a bar, Martin Vail notices the news report about the altar boy Aaron Stampler being arrested for murdering a well known Catholic Archbishop. Martin Vail realizes this murder suspect could help him land higher paying clients. The news media was bombarding the news media with the latest breaking news on the murder of the beloved Archbishop Rushman. It was on almost every television channel in Chicago. Martin asks his office to get him in to see Aaron Stampler.

While visiting Aaron Stampler in jail, Martin decides to accept him as a pro bono client. Martin Vail finds Aaron to be a simple stuttering southern bumpkin from Kentucky, yet a good kid who needs someone on his side. Martin believes Aaron’s claim of innocence.

Aaron who has no money and is originally from Creekside, Kentucky is very grateful to this high profile Chicago Defense Attorney. He does not want the Chicago Court to give him the Death Penalty. Aaron claims he saw another person in the room leaning over the murdered Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson), who was “like a father” to him, when Aaron came in to check out a noise he heard coming from the Archbishop’s private chambers. Aaron also admits to “losing time” due to black outs. Martin immediately has his office begin searching for this third person who possibly murdered the Archbishop Rushman.

This decision pits Martin antagonistically against the District Attorney’s Prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney) and her boss District Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney, known for his role as Martin “Marty” Crane in the television series Frasier ). Prosecutor Venable wholeheartedly believes Aaron Stampler murdered the Archbishop. All of the evidence collected by the Chicago Police points to Aaron’s guilt. Janet Venable is dedicated to win this case for the good of Chicago’s society. District Attorney John Shaughnessy makes it clear Janet was chosen as Prosecutor because she is the best Prosecuting Attorney they have. The District Attorney insists upon Janet filing for the Death Penalty. John Shaughnessy wants justice for his long term friend Archbishop Rushman who was murdered.

As the Court proceedings commence, the defense pleas “not guilty” on behalf of Aaron Stampler who is advised not to say anything in court. Martin tries to get a continuance in order to obtain a psychic evaluation before the hearing, but his request is denied.

Still determined to comply with standard procedure with a murder case, Martin Vail arranges for Neuropsychologist Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand, the recipient of Best Actress Oscar by the Academy Awards in 1996 for her role Marge Gunderson in the movie Fargo ) to examine Aaron. Martin believes it will help Aaron recall what occurred; assist Aaron in remembering the third person better. Martin genuinely wants to find the third person in order to cast “Reasonable Doubt” in this case which could prevent the jury from deciding a “guilty” verdict. Aaron’s life is on the line. A “guilty” verdict would mean the Death Penalty. Martin is determined to save him.

The Neuropsychologist’s examination surprises Dr. Molly Arrington when it reveals an unexpected duo-personality, a multiple personality disorder. Dr. Arrington deduces by the examination’s results that this multiple personality disorder began when Aaron was 12 years of age and was caused by his father’s abuse. Before she can inform Martin Vail about this, Martin interrupts her examination to discuss the case with Aaron. Martin insists whatever she has to tell him can wait and abruptly requests Dr. Arrington leave the room. Martin then turns off the camera Dr. Molly Arrington was using to film her examination in case it revealed anything Martin could use in court for Aaron’s defense. He does not want their discussion taped for what he wants to know from Aaron is case sensitive and confidential.

This decision by Martin Vail places him in a precarious situation in the same room with a psychotic second personality who shocks Martin by appearing when he pushes Aaron for an answer to a question Aaron refuses to answer. This second personality calls himself “Roy”. Roy admits to being a cold blooded killer and Aaron’s protector. No one gets away with pushing Aaron around. No one hurts Aaron without Roy stepping in for Aaron. Martin gets hurt when he accidentally angers Roy. Dr. Arrington barely rescues him by re-entering the room asking Aaron if everything is all right which causes Aaron to resurface with no memory of what Roy did.

This new development of a mental disorder does not help Aaron’s case. It is too late to change the plea to “Insanity.” Martin Vail now has mixed-emotions over Roy’s appearance for it alters his defense plans; could possibly weaken any type of defense. Martin requests his office to cease searching for the third person. He informs them the third person was found and that he was Roy, the second personality residing within Aaron. His office personnel shocked by this development attempt to assist Martin with developing a new defense strategy for Aaron.

The rest of Primal Fear is about how Martin Vail figures out a way to give Aaron Stampler the very best defense that prevents Aaron from receiving the Death Penalty. The surprise ending is worth viewing. This is an eye opener about those who are truly criminally insane and the lengths some will go to in order to convince a Defense Attorney they are savable.

All cast and crew created a very professional and superb movie; excellently done. Director Gregory Hoblit has every right to be proud of Primal Fear . This movie is one of the best crime thrillers created from the Entertainment Industry.

The rest of the primary cast (in the order given by the credits) were: Alfre Woodward (Judge Shoat), Terry O’Quinn (Bud Yancy), Andre Braugher (Tommy Goodman, ex-Chicago cop who works for Martin Vail as a private investigator), Steven Bauer (Joey Pinero, a client of Martin Vail’s), Joe Spano (Abel Stenner), Tony Plana (Martinez), Maura Tierney (Naomi Chance, Martin Vail’s Legal Assistant), Jon Seda (Alex, the altar boy caught snooping in Aaron’s apartment for a tape Archbishop Rushman had filmed that could incriminate he and Aaron), Reg Rogers (Jack Connerman), KennethTiger (Weil), Brian Reddy (Woodside), Christopher Carroll (M.C.), Wendy Cutler (Lou), Ron O.J. Parson (Turner), Joseph Luis Caballero (Joe, the magazine reporter and friend of Martin Vail’s who wanted to finish his positive interview with Martin.) and Azalea Davila (Linda, Aaron Stampler’s missing girlfriend).

Primal Fear is rated R and on DVD. This movie encompasses very adult psychological material that most minors would find very disturbing. The expert solid twisted plot and subplots in Primal Fear were originally from the Thriller genre novel titled Primal Fear by author William Diehl published by Villard Books in January 1993.

Highly recommend Primal Fear ; especially for those who enjoy a good psychological murder mystery type of thriller. This is a “must-see” for all Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Edward Norton fans! Their performances were awesome!


5 stars for Primal Fear


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    • Meredith_A_Iager profile image


      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Great movie, great review Alicia! :) Is def. a classic film, and yes Edward Norton deserved an Oscar award for this role!

    • aliciaharrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Alicia Rose Harrell 

      8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      You are very welcome! Thank you for noticing my review :)

    • Steve Orion profile image

      Steve Orion 

      8 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      With this kind of cast, I'm surprised I haven't come across this film yet! Thanks for the review, I'll check it out =)


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