The film “Primal Fear” is adapted from the first book in the Martin Vail Series written by William Diehl in 1993.  The same characters are used in Diehl’s two novels which follow, and are entitled “Show of Evil” and “Reign in Hell.”

Edward Norton who played the character Aaron Stampler, won a Golden Globe for his performance and was also nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role.  “Primal Fear” was Norton’s film debut, although he has done Off-Broadway stage performances also.  He is an environmentalist and a social activist and is involved in many philanthropic activities.


Richard GereCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                                Richard Gere - Wikimedia


In the film “Primal Fear,” Richard Gere portrays a successful lawyer, Martin Vail, who agreed to take on a Pro Bono case because he craved publicity and owed a favor to the legal community.  He had just won a case with a $1.5 million settlement and was basking in his success.  Gere’s performance was spectacular; it was good to see him in a high-quality role before his downward spiral due to poor choices of script.

Martin’s client was Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), an altar boy from Kentucky who had a pronounced stutter.  The young man was accused of murdering the Archbishop of Chicago, Richard Rushman (Stanley Anderson), because he was at the scene of the crime and was covered with the Archbishop’s blood.  He claimed that he was just returning a book and a third person was in the room, leaning over the Archbishop.  Because of public sympathy for the beloved priest and the circumstantial evidence, it was a difficult case for Martin Vail to win.  Nevertheless, in speaking with his client, Martin was convinced of his innocence.

Aaron had been taken in off the streets by the Archbishop and became an altar boy and a member of the Church Choir.  The priest was like a father to him and Aaron denied doing him any harm.


Edward NortonCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                          Edward Norton - Wikimedia

The Prosecuting Attorney

At the annual Catholic Charities Ball, Martin encountered his former lover, Janet Venable (Laura Linney), an attorney who had been given the task of prosecuting Martin’s client, Aaron.  Janet was unfriendly to Martin and spoke of their six-month affair as a one-night stand.  She was an inveterate smoker.  Janet worked in the office of the State’s Attorney, John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), whose corruptibility was well known.  He had lost several million dollars in real estate investments when Archbishop Rushman refused to allow him to build a development on church lands.  Martin Vail had worked for Shaugnessy previously, but became disenchanted with his employer and became a defense attorney with his own practice.

Martin’s Interview with Aaron

Aaron explained to Martin that he had frequent blackouts where he did not remember what had recently occurred, calling them “lost time.”  He had blacked out in the Archbishop’s room and when he awoke, he was covered with blood.  There were 78 stab wounds in the Archbishop, inflicted by a left-handed person.  Aaron was left-handed.


KnifeCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                        Kitchen Knife - Wikimedia

New Revelations

Another altar boy, Alex, was questioned and admitted going to the Archbishop’s room to look for a videotape of Alex, Aaron, and Aaron’s girlfriend, Linda, performing sex for the Archbishop, who claimed that the experience helped to rid him of his demons.  Alex did not find the tape.

Aaron’s Strange Behavior

Martin went to the Archbishop’s room and was able to uncover the tape which he watched.  He questioned Aaron who claimed that “Roy,” not he, had committed the murder.  Aaron’s second personality came out during the interview and he became violent towards Martin, who realized that Aaron had a personality disorder.  When Aaron’s true personality re-emerged, he had no recollection of what had occurred during the personality switch.

A Psychiatrist Examines Aaron

Martin engaged a psychiatrist, Dr. Molly Arrington (Frances McDormand), to examine Aaron.  She concluded that Aaron had a multiple personality disorder and agreed to testify on his behalf.  She claimed that he was insane, he was a sick kid, not a criminal.  Aaron had suffered years of abuse from his father which had triggered his disorder.  He claimed that his father was not a nice man, and that he started having blackouts when he was twelve years old.  Martin knew that he would not be able to make a plea of insanity during the ongoing trial.


Laura LinneyCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                            Laura Linney - Wikimedia

Martin’s Decision

To insure that the tape would be admitted in court, Martin made the decision to send the tape to Janet Venable which would convince the prosecutor that Aaron had a motive for killing the Archbishop.  She was under intense pressure from her boss, John Shaughnessy to get a guilty verdict for Aaron, and had not yet come up with a believable motive.

Judge Shoat’s Ruling

When Aaron was on the witness stand, Janet was so harsh to him during her cross-examination that Aaron turned into “Roy” in front of the crowd and attacked her, threatening to snap her neck if anyone approached him.  Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard) declared a recess and Aaron was taken away.  She declared him not guilty by reason of insanity, and sent him to a maximum security mental hospital.


Alfre WoodardCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                            Alfre Woodard - Wikimedia

The Fallout

John Shaughnessy fired Janet for losing the case.  He was also disturbed that she had caused the Archbishop’s secret crimes to be known publicly since the priest had been protected from that revelation for many, many years.

There was no indication that Martin and Janet reconciled their differences and became friends again, although he did make an attempt at a reconciliation.  Martin went to visit Aaron to tell him what had occurred since Aaron recalled nothing that had happened on that fateful day.

No Spoiler Here

There is a shocking ending to this story which will not be revealed here.  What a great story!  I have not witnessed such an intriguing tale in many years.  William Diehl is a wonderful story teller.  I can’t wait to read his sequels to “Prime Fear,” since the next two books, “Show of Evil,” and “Reign in Hell,” continue with the same characters, Martin Vail and Aaron Stampler.














Primal Fear by Diehl, William (1993) Hardcover
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