Program Notes: Primal Fear (1996)

"Gotcha" movies only work if you don't see the big reveal coming.

And that hardly ever happens. You can always find somebody who swears he/she knew all along that Bruce Willis was a ghost in Sixth Sense.

But the "gotcha" at the end of Primal Fear? I've never met anyone who wasn't completely suckered in by this thriller and by Edward Norton's hair-raising performance in his first major movie.

As is often the case with such enterprises, the plot is wildly improbable and its internal logic can't stand close scrutiny.

But writers Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman and director Gregory Hoblit (a veteran of TV's NYPD Blue and a multiple Emmy winner) threw just enough curves to always be a step or two ahead of the audience.

Film Screening:
Primal Fear (1996)
Saturday, June 29 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, Chicago's top criminal attorney and a smug egomaniac. Ever looking to enhance his reputation, Vail takes as a charity client a young man named Aaron Stampler (Norton) who is accused of savagely slashing to death the Catholic archbishop of Chicago.

The prosecution’s case looks foolproof. Aaron was caught running from the archbishop's residence covered in blood.

His alibi is feeble. A street kid who was sheltered by the archbishop and served as an altar boy, Aaron claims to have stumbled across the murder scene, where he blacked out.

Aaron is soft-spoken, scrupulously polite, and shy – hardly murderer quality. Vail hires a psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) to get inside the kid's mind. Her therapy reveals a history of abuse.

Vail is eager to win a case everyone else views as hopeless; his plan is to use a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity defense.

Beyond this, very little can be said about Primal Fear without giving away important plot twists. Some are mere red herrings, but so effective are these diversionary tactics that when Primal Fear finally unveils its really big switcheroo, even jaded viewers will be surprised.

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Primal Fear (the title seems to have been chosen by a computer programmed to generate generic names for thrillers) is all about the plot. The characters are almost secondary.

Gere's narcissistic lawyer is mostly glamour-boy with little substance; solid but uncompelling supporting performances are turned in by the likes of Alfre Woodard, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney, and John Mahoney.

The real star of the film, in fact, is Norton, who in his first film appearance delivers an absolutely edge-of-your-seat performance as the hapless defendant. And he was a last-minute substitution for Leonardo DiCaprio, who was all set for the role but backed out.

Norton, at that point a stage actor, answered a casting call and, feeling confident that he wouldn’t get the part, decided to throw all caution to the wind and just let her rip. His reading electrified casting director Deborah Aquila ... and a star was born.

Other films in the series “Order in the Court!”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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