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Primal Fear

Theatrical Release Poster
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Produced by Gary Lucchesi
Howard W. Koch, Jr.
Written by William Diehl (novel)
Steve Shagan
Ann Biderman
Starring Richard Gere
Laura Linney
Edward Norton
Andre Braugher
John Mahoney
Alfre Woodard
Frances McDormand
Steven Bauer
Terry O'Quinn
Maura Tierney
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Michael Chapman
Editing by David Rosenbloom
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) April 3, 1996
Running time 130 min.
Language English
Budget $30,000,000 (estimated)
Gross revenue $56,059,267 (theatrical)
$24,587,400 (rentals)

Primal Fear is a 1996 motion picture directed by Gregory Hoblit which tells the story of a defense attorney, Martin Vail (Richard Gere), who defends an altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), charged with the murder of a Catholic archbishop. The movie is an adaptation of William Diehl's 1993 novel. Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his career-launching role.

The film also stars Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, and Frances McDormand.



Martin Vail is a prominent defense attorney in Chicago who jumps at the chance to represent Aaron Stampler, a young, stammering altar boy accused of murdering the city's archbishop. Stampler admits to having been with the archbishop at the time of the murder, but claims that an unknown third person committed the crime while he (Stampler) had "lost time" (blacked out).

At first interested primarily in the publicity that the case will bring, Vail comes to believe that his client is truly innocent, much to the chagrin of the prosecutor (and Vail's former lover), Janet Venable.

Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including the District Attorney, have lost millions in real estate investments due to a decision by the Archbishop not to develop certain church lands. The archbishop received numerous death threats as a result. He also learns that the archbishop had been sexually abusing altar boys, including Stampler.

Introducing this evidence, while it would make Stampler more sympathetic to the jury, would also give his client a motive for murder, something the prosecution otherwise has lacked.

The trial does not proceed well for the defense, as there is considerable evidence against Stampler and public opinion holds him almost certainly guilty. When Vail confronts his client and accuses him of having lied, Aaron breaks down and transforms into a new persona, a violent sociopath who calls himself "Roy." He confesses to the murder of the archbishop and throws Vail against the wall, injuring him.

When this incident is over, Aaron appears to have no recollection of it. Molly Arrington, the psychiatrist examining Aaron, is convinced he suffers from multiple personality disorder due to childhood abuse by his own father.[1] However, Vail cannot enter an insanity plea during an ongoing trial.

Vail sets up a confrontation in court. After Venable questions him harshly, Aaron turns into Roy and charges at her, threatening to snap her neck if anyone comes near him. Aaron is subdued by courthouse marshals and is rushed back to his cell. In light of Aaron's apparent insanity, the judge declares a mistrial, dismisses the jury and remands Aaron to a mental hospital.

Vail visits to tell him this news. Aaron says he recalls nothing of what happened in the courtroom, having again "lost time." However, just as Vail is leaving, Aaron asks him to "tell Ms. Venable I hope her neck is okay," which is not something that Aaron should have been able to remember if he had "lost time."

Vail points this out, whereupon Stampler grins slyly and reveals that he has been pretending to be insane the whole time. But he didn't make up the identity of Roy ... he made up Aaron.

Stampler now admits to having murdered the archbishop, as well as his girlfriend, Linda, whom the cleric also had molested. Stunned and disillusioned, Vail walks away, with Roy taunting him from the cell.


See also


  1. ^ Psychologist Richard Gartner reports that as of 1999, Primal Fear was one of only two feature films to feature male-male incest as a theme (the other film was the 1998 Danish drama The Celebration). See Gartner, Richard. 1999. Cinematic Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization (page four of five). Gender and Psychoanalysis (1999) Volume 4:253-28.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Primal Fear is a 1996 film about an altar boy who is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.

Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, based on the novel by William Diehl.
Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real. taglines
Spoiler warning: Plot, ending, or solution details follow.


Martin Vail

  • Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people's lives? That was a joke. All right, I'll tell you. I believe in the notion, that people are innocent until proven guilty. I believe in that notion because I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things.


  • I got you. You're the lawyer. Well, you sure fucked this one up, didn't you, counselor? Looks to me like they're gonna shoot ol' Aaron so full o' poison it's gonna come out his eyes!


  • Janet Venable: Do you know what I would do if someone did that to me? I would kill him, I wouldn't hesitate. I would stab him 78 times. I would chop off his fingers, slash his throat open, carve numbers in his chest, gouge out his eyes, I swear to God!... But that's me.
  • Judge Miriam Shoat: You are making a mockery of my courtroom and I'm not going to allow it. I suggest you start representing your client and stop representing yourself.


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

Martin: Come on... all you have to do is turn around.
Janet: I thought you liked it better like this. That way you don't have to look at the person.
Martin: You're mean. Look at me. Come on. Let's go find a bar you can still smoke in.
Janet: Thanks for the invite, but I don't like one-night stands all that much.
Martin: We saw each other for months.
Janet: It was a one-night stand, Marty. It just lasted six months.

Martin: Yeah, I'm Martin Vail, from the public defender's office. I'm handling the Aaron Stampler case.
Cop: Hmm, The Butcher Boy.
Martin: Yes, thank you, I forgot his real name.

John Shaughnessy: Listen to me Marty, it's a mistake to stick your thumbs in the eyes of the most powerful people in the city.
Martin: I'm not aiming for their eyes.
John Shaughnessy: Don't fuck with me, Marty.

Janet: [arguing before the judge] Next thing you know, he'll be objecting to introducing the murder weapon into evidence!
Martin: Well, now that you bring it up...

Janet: No further questions your honor.
Roy: Where the hell do you think you're going?
Janet: Excuse me?
Roy: Hey you look at me when I'm talkin' to you, bitch!
Judge Miriam Shoat: Mr. Stampler!
Roy: Fuck you, lady! Come here!
[Roy jumps over the witness stand and grabs Janet and punches Martin]
Judge Miriam Shoat: Bailiff!
Roy: You wanna play rough, let's play rough. Come on, lets play rough!
[Bailiff and secruity slowly walk toward Roy]
Roy: Yeah, keep comin' closer asshole, don't think I won't break her fuckin' neck!
Martin: Roy, come on. I got...
Roy: Fuck you, Marty! I'm walkin' outta here slowly. Really slow.

Aaron: Mr. Vail, will you t-tell Miss Venable I'm sorry? Tell her I hope her neck is OK.
[Martin walks away and comes back realizing what Aaron said]
Martin: What did you just say?
Aaron: What?
Martin: You told me you don't remember. You black out. So how do you know about her neck?
Aaron: [pauses and stammers, then starts clapping] Well... good for you, Marty. I was gonna let it go. You were looking so happy just now, I was thinking "hmmmm'? To tell you the truth, I'm glad you figured it. 'Cause I have been dyin' to tell you! I just didn't know who you'd wanna hear it from. Aaron or Roy or Roy or Aaron. Well I'll let you on a lil' secret, a client-attorney kind of secret. It don't matter who you hear it from, it's the same story! [stammering, like Aaron] I j-j-just had to kill Linda, Mr. Vail, that cunt just got what she deserved. But... [speaking normally, like Roy] cuttin' up that son of a bitch Rushman? That was just a fuckin' work of art! [Laughs]
Martin: You're good. You are really good.
Roy: Yeah I did get caught though didn't I?
Marty: So there never...there never was a Roy?
Roy: Jesus Christ, Marty. If that's what you think, I'm disappointed in you. There never was an Aaron, counselor. [winks] Come on, I thought you had it figured there at the end. The way you put me on the stand like that, that was brilliant. The whole "act-like-a-man" thing. I knew what you wanted. It was like we were dancing, Marty!
Martin: [walking away] Guard!
Roy: Don't be like that, Marty. We did it, man. We fucking did it. We're a great team, you and me. You think I could've done this without you? [Martin continues walking out] You're feeling angry because you started to care about old Aaron, but... love hurts, Marty. What can I say? I'm just kidding, bud! I didn't mean to hurt your feelings! What else was I supposed to do?! You'll thank me down the road, 'cause this'll toughen you up, Martin Vail! You hear me? That's a promise!


  • Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real.
  • Don't believe everything you see...


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