Primal Fear (1996) - Rotten Tomatoes

Primal Fear (1996)



Critic Consensus: A straightforward, entertaining thriller with a crackerjack performance by Edward Norton.

Movie Info

A high-profile slaying becomes the case of an ambitious attorney's career in this legal thriller based on the novel by William Diehl. Richard Gere stars as Martin Vail, a famed defense lawyer who volunteers his services to Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), a Kentucky teenager charged with the murder of a Chicago archbishop. Covered with blood, Aaron was captured after a foot chase broadcast live on TV, making a gleeful Vail certain that he could raise his profile by defending the obviously guilty suspect. Assigned to prosecute is Assistant District Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney), who is Vail's ex-girlfriend. Vail's case becomes more complicated than he expected when a psychologist, Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand) concludes that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder. Vail also uncovers evidence that the archbishop was involved in a corrupt land scheme and may have molested young parishioners. Now the cynical, opportunistic attorney is faced with a daunting prospect, a client who may actually deserve his best defense. Its shocking, twist ending made Primal Fear (1996) a big box office hit and earned Norton, in his screen debut, an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. ~ Karl Williams, Rovimore
Rating: R
Genre: Mystery & Suspense, Drama
Directed By:
Written By: Ann Biderman, Steve Shagan
In Theaters:
On DVD: Oct 20, 1998
Paramount Pictures


Richard Gere
as Martin Vail
Edward Norton
as Aaron Stampler
Laura Linney
as Janet Venable
Alfre Woodard
as Judge Miriam Shoat
John Mahoney
as John Shaughnessy
Frances McDormand
as Dr. Molly Arrington
Steven Bauer
as Joey Pinero
Joe Spano
as Capt. Abel Stenner
Tony Plana
as Martinez
Reg Rogers
as Connerman
Brian Reddy
as Woodside
Sigrid K. Zahner
as Vail's Secretary
Diann Burns
as WLS Anchor
Linda Yu
as WLS Anchor
Andy Shaw
as WLS Location Reporte...
Mary Ann Childers
as WBBM Anchor
Lester Holt
as WBBM Anchor
Sylvia Gomez
as WBBM Location Report...
Jon Duncanson
as WBBM Location Report...
David Eckert
as WGN Anchor
Joanie Lum
as WGN Location Reporte...
Randy Salerno
as WGN Location Reporte...
Randall Slavin
as Young Boy
Turk Muller
as Precinct Jailer
Lenny Wilson
as Bartender
Wayne Wright
as Court Clerk
Tony Fitzpatrick
as Duty Officer
Rosalie V. Lewis
as Stenographer
Dwight Brad Dyer
as Prison Guard
Lester D. Holt
as WBBM Anchor
Show More Cast

News & Interviews for Primal Fear

Critic Reviews for Primal Fear

All Critics (58) | Top Critics (15)

As a forum for its actors and for the big-screen directorial debut of multi-Emmy winner Gregory Hoblit, the film is up to the job.

January 1, 2000
USA Today
Top Critic

...a solid drama that's elevated on an all-too-consistent basis by Norton's impressively hypnotic work.

Full Review… | May 7, 2011
Reel Film Reviews

Edward Norton became an instant star after making a splashy, Oscar-nominated performance in this well-executed horror thriller.

Full Review… | May 1, 2011

An unfolding mystery in which truth is elusive, and twists are the order of the Norton a career-making opportunity to strut his stuff. [Blu-ray]

Full Review… | June 19, 2009
Groucho Reviews

its heroes only heroes because they believe in order and not because they're capable of order's championing or restoration.

Full Review… | April 1, 2009
Film Freak Central

Helped greatly by excellent performances from both of the film's leads, as well as the rounded supporting cast.

Full Review… | March 26, 2009

Audience Reviews for Primal Fear

Primal Fear is a well crafted court room drama thriller that is very well directed by underrated Gregory Hoblit. I really love his movies and Primal Fear is taut, thrilling edge of your seat movie that will keep you guessing from start to finish. The film boasts a great cast of talented actor who light up the screen and each actor brings something unique to the film. The film is notable for being the screen debut of Edward Norton who just steals the show among veteran actors like Richard Gere and Laura Linney. The film at times does have a few weak points, but with a great cast at hand that just light up the screen, it is hard to notice the film's imperfections. Edward Norton, like I said is simply wonderful in his part and he delivers a phenomenal first performance in his role of Aaron Stampler, a teen accused of killing a popular archbishop. The film is engaging from the first frame onwards and it is skillfully executed to keep you entertained. Primal Fear is one of the best court room thrillers that I have seen, and it is a film that is directed by a director that deserves much more praise than he gets. If you love thrillers that will keep you on the edge till the very end, Primal Fear is one such movie. This is a chilling piece of work that is brilliantly constructed and has a smart plot with all the necessary ingredients to make it a standout film and a memorable one that you soon won't forget. The film showcased Edward Norton's talents and it was clear that by seeing him in this early role, he would become a talented actor that would deliver terrific and engaging performances.

Alex roy

Super Reviewer


One detriment of the film is its mainstream formula. It needlessly adds the romance of Gere and Linney, which is both frivolous and unrealistic. I'm not sure which audience was being catered for with their wholly unlikely association with each other. Though hampered by Hollywood's depiction of a courtroom, Primal Fear is a twisting, entertaining thriller with Edward Norton's performance being the key to its success.

Jack Hawkins
Jack Hawkins

Super Reviewer

"A very interesting twisted story. I didn't really know much about the movie. I just was cruising through Netflix looking for a good crime drama and saw Mr. Gere on the cover and hit play. Gere never disappoints in these types of films. I miss him in movies. I was surprised with all the good actors this movie had in it.

I really enjoyed the movie and the way it played out. I kinda saw the ending coming since I was watching with my mother who has a big mouth and continues to tell me what's about to happen. I hate watching films she's already seen. But still I was completely enthralled by the story and the unravelling of it all.

A movie I would see again.


Super Reviewer

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