The film tells the story of a Chicago defense attorney who believes his altar boy client is not guilty of murdering an influential Catholic Archbishop.
Martin Vail is a Chicago defense attorney who loves the public spotlight and does everything he can to get his high-profile clients acquitted on legal technicalities. One day, he sees a news report about the arrest of Aaron Stampler, a young altar boy from Kentucky with a severe stutter, who is accused of brutally murdering the beloved Archbishop Rushman. Vail jumps at the chance to represent the young man pro bono.
During his meetings at the county jail with Stampler, Vail comes to believe that his client is innocent, much to the chagrin of the prosecutor (and Vail's former lover), Janet Venable.
As the murder trial begins, Vail discovers that powerful civic leaders, including the corrupt state's attorney John Shaughnessy, have lost millions of dollars in real estate investments due to a decision by the Archbishop not to develop on certain church lands. The Archbishop received numerous death threats as a result. Following a tip from a former altar boy about a videotape involving Stampler, Vail makes a search of the Archbishop's apartment and finds a VHS tape of Stampler being forced to have sex with another altar boy and a girl named Linda. Vail is now in a dilemma: introducing this evidence would make Stampler more sympathetic to the jury, but it would also give his client a motive for the murder, which Venable is unable to establish.
When Vail confronts his client and accuses him of having lied, Stampler breaks down crying and suddenly transforms into a new persona: a violent sociopath who calls himself "Roy" and confesses to the murder of the Archbishop. When this incident is over, Stampler once again becomes passive and shy, and appears to have no recollection of the personality switch. Molly Arrington, the psychiatrist examining Stampler, is convinced that he suffers from multiple personality disorder caused by years of abuse at the hands of his father. Vail does not want to hear this, because he knows that he cannot enter an insanity plea during an ongoing trial.
Vail slowly sets up a confrontation in court by dropping hints about the Archbishop's pedophilia, as well as Stampler's multiple personalities. He also has the sex tape delivered to Venable, knowing she will realize who sent it and—since she is under intense pressure from both Shaughnessy and her boss Bud Yancy to deliver a guilty verdict—will use it as proof of motive.
Vail puts Stampler on the witness stand and gently questions him about the abuse he suffered at the Archbishop's hands. After Venable questions him harshly during cross-examination, Stampler turns into "Roy" in open court and attacks her, threatening to snap her neck if anyone comes near him. He is subdued by courthouse marshals and rushed back to his holding cell. The judge dismisses the jury in favor of a bench trial and then finds Stampler not guilty by reason of insanity, remanding him to a maximum security mental hospital. Venable is fired for losing the case and allowing the Archbishop's crimes, which both the Catholic Church and the city council had been trying to hide for the past ten years, to come to public light.
Vail visits Stampler in his cell to tell him of the dismissal. Stampler says he recalls nothing of what happened in the courtroom, having again "lost time". Just as Vail is leaving, Stampler asks him to "tell Miss Venable I hope her neck is okay", which he could not have been able to remember if he had "lost time". When Vail confronts him, Stampler reveals that he had faked multiple personality disorder. No longer stuttering, he brags about having murdered Archbishop Rushman, as well as Linda. When Vail says "There never was a Roy", Stampler replies, "There never was an Aaron, counselor". A stunned and disillusioned Vail walks away as Stampler taunts him from his cell.
The soundtrack included Portuguese fado song "Canção do Mar" sung by Dulce Pontes, whose success sparked renewed interest in fado worldwide.
Primal Fear received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 74% positive rating based on reviews from 43 critics, with an average score of 6.7 out of 10. The site's consensus states "A straightforward, entertaining thriller with a crackerjack performance by Edward Norton".
According to Janet Maslin, the film has a "good deal of surface charm", but "the story relies on an overload of tangential subplots to keep it looking busy." Roger Ebert wrote, "the plot is as good as crime procedurals get, but the movie is really better than its plot because of the three-dimensional characters." Ebert awarded Primal Fear three-and-a-half stars out of a possible four, described Gere's performance as one of the best in his career, praised Linney for rising above what might have been a stock character, and applauded Edward Norton for offering a "completely convincing" portrayal.
The film spent three weekends at the top of the U.S. box office.
Norton's depiction of Aaron Stampler earned him multiple awards and nominations.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Aaron Stampler – Nominated Villain
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Courtroom Drama Film