Review: Primal Fear (1996)


What started as a very interesting mystery film, turned out to be a complete disappointment for me. Primal Fear is full of flaws redeemed only by the astonishing acting of Edward Norton.

The main character is Martin Vail (Richard Gere), an attorney who believes that every defendant, no matter if he’s guilty or not, has the right to the best defense. When a 17-year-old boy is accused of murdering the city’s archbishop, Martin finds himself with a big case. Not only that, but he starts to believe that Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) might be innocent after all. The fact that he has to face his ex in court makes the situation even more intense for Martin who is determined to uncover the case. As we move on we discover that things are a bit more complicated than we thought. So far, so good. An interesting film with an intriguing murder mystery case. From that point on though it only gets worse. I’m afraid I’ll have to give away the plot to explain why I didn’t like it so…


Aaron seems like a young troubled guy who is incapable of hurting anyone. He claims that he is innocent and that another person was there when the murder happened although he doesn’t know who. It is then revealed that Aaron suffers from multiple personality disorder and that another identity of him named Roy has killed the archbishop. Molly Arrington (Frances Mc Dormand), a psychologist that Martin hires, confirms this. Roy comes out whenever Aaron is scared or upset and when he’s off Aaron can’t remember a thing. When Martin discovers that, he manages to convince the court that Aaron is sick and wins the case, only to find out that Aaron Stampler was in fact sane and he was only pretending to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. It sounds like a great twisting plot right? Well, it could have been, but it is so full of plot holes that it becomes only annoying in the end:

  1. Anyone that knows about how courts work can see that the court scenes are unrealistic at the least
  2. Martin tries to convince the judge that Aaron is sick even though he hasn’t plead insanity from the beginning. Even he himself acknowledges that something like this is impossible. This could never happen in any respectable court. He tries anyway though and somehow succeeds.
  3. Aaron doesn’t remember Roy, he doesn’t even know of his existence. However Roy knows and remembers everything about Aaron. I’m not a psychologist, but doesn’t this sound a bit wrong?
  4. Ok, Roy manages to convince Martin that he is insane, but is it so easy to convince a psychologist? Shouldn’t Molly have realized that something was off?
  5. Aaron initially claims that there was a third person in the murder spot. He couldn’t have talked about Roy of course. So he’s either lying or there really was a third person and he could be very important. How is it that nobody thought of that?


The film was a complete mess. Apart from Norton, everyone else’s performance is more or less forgettable. I don’t know if it is a faithful adaptation of the book, but in any case the screenplay is appalling. I repeat, Edward Norton’s performance was the only good thing about this film and it definitely deserved the Oscar nomination, maybe even a win. This is also the only reason I wouldn’t recommend against watching the film.



2 thoughts on “Review: Primal Fear (1996)

  1. cellardoor2017 February 6, 2017 / 4:01 am

    Okay i just finished watching it ! 4/10 is harsh!! :p Personally i liked it, it has a nice plot. I’m a fan of Richard Gere so i may be biased but i think his performance was anything but forgettable. On the outside you have a guy who is arrogant , cares about money and fame and is ready to take on this case just because of the coverage it gets , but then at the bar scene when he is seating half drunk talking to a journalist we see that he’s driven by good intentions, he believes in the basic goodness of people and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. In the end we see that because of this he was manipulated by Aaron. Edward Norton was amazing as you said. The movie;s structure follows the courtroom/crime drama type theme very popular in the 90’s but i think manages to distinct itself thanks to the plot and acting. Are there plot holes ? Yeah like in every film something will be a little off but i think the bigger picture is about what has led a person to commit murder , how do the characters feel about that afterwards etc. I dont know , overall i liked it i think the little flaws you mentioned are washed away by the overall picture for me at least 😛


  2. reflectingoncinemablog February 6, 2017 / 9:34 pm

    You’re entitled to your own opinion. I enjoyed it myself until about the first half. Then things started not making sense. You say he was manipulated by Aaron because of his good intentions, but he was actually manipulated by Aaron because of plot holes. These “little off” points you mention seem “way off” for me and they actually make Martin seem like an idiot. If you like it, fine. Others seem to like it too, for me it was just disappointing.


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