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Film: Primal Fear
Not intended to be a lawyer joke

Primal Fear is a 1996 crime drama about Amoral Attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) who defends an altar boy (Edward Norton) accused of the brutal murder of an archbishop. Vail, at first only interested in the publicity of the case, soon discovers that there is more to the case than meets the eye.

The movie proved to be Norton's career-launching role.

Not to be confused with the trope of the same name, with which it has little to do.

Also, as the movie is a series of Reveals, spoilers will be problematic.

Warning: Expect every example to be a spoiler for something. Proceed at your own risk.


The film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Amoral Attorney: A Deconstruction of this trope.
    • On the cynical hand, Vail knows that guilty people often have loads of money to spend on expensive legal aid.
      Martin Vail: First thing that I ask a new client is "Have you been saving up for a rainy day? Guess what? It's rain-ing!"
    • On the idealistic hand, Vail also believes in the system and its ability to protect the innocent from wrongful punishment.
      Martin Vail: 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.
    • And on the realistic hand, the fact that the system is designed to place the protection of the innocent over the punishment of the guilty means that inevitably more than a few monsters will get off scot-free - Aaron Stampler is only able to get away with his insanity plea with Vail's assistance. A grisly multiple murderer thus ducks the needle.
      Aaron Stampler: 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?
  • Asshole Victim: The archbishop is revealed to be one when his video is found.
  • Batman Gambit: When Aaron Stampler takes the stand, Martin Vail baits the prosecutor into going after him, hoping that Roy will come out and prove to everybody that split-personality disorder exist. It works when Aaron conveniently turns into Roy and violently attacks the prosecutor. Of course we find out later it was all an act. "It was like we were dancing, Marty".
  • Break the Cutie: Aaron appears to be this, until the film's twist.
  • Clear My Name: Aaron claims to be innocent and Vail eventually comes to believe him despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the fact that most people think he is guilty. He's wrong.
  • Downer Ending: Martin ends up helping a brutal killer play the legal system with success and escape conviction for murder. Martin and everyone else attached to the case is disillusioned by the outcome, or don't care anymore. The film ends as he leaves the courtroom building through the side door, not wanting to face the press. He stops to contemplate, and My God, What Have I Done? is written all over his face.
  • Evil All Along: Aaron was a monster right from the start. His meek persona was all a lie.
  • Extreme Doormat: Aaron, or so it seems.
  • Gollum Made Me Do It: What Aaron claims is going on. Until we find out otherwise in the finale.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Averted. Marty defended a drug dealer before, but he seems to really believe that everyone is entitled to the best defense they can have, and gives Aaron who turns out to be even worse, his services free (although it's also good publicity).
  • Hanging Judge: Hangin' Harry Shoat.
  • Hollywood Law:
    • The film implies that Aaron "gets away" with murder because of his insanity defense. In reality, he'd likely be committed and spend the rest of his life in a mental institution, with actually fewer legal rights than on death row or serving a life sentence.
    • Split Personality is actually not considered a valid insanity defense in most places.
    • Also, the film neglects the fact that Aaron hasn't been acquitted at the end. Martin just agreed with the judge to retry it as a bench trial, where she would consider his insanity defense alone, without a jury. True, he can't reveal the movie's twist, that Aaron was faking it but there's still no guarantee he'll actually get off, as the insanity defense only works in about one-fourth of the cases where it's used. Even if he did, as stated above people acquitted on the ground of insanity usually wind up living out the rest of their life in a mental institution.
      • This is handled differently in the books, where Aaron holds a grudge against Marty for sending him to the loony bin by pleading insanity instead of sticking to the "poor, abused altar boy" story and using the sex tape to soften up the jury. Given ten years, he charms and works himself into a position where he can leave the institution at will, though, and escapes.
  • Home Porn Movie: One is discovered that puts the case in a whole new light.
  • Hyde Plays Jekyll: Subverted. It was all an act.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Aaron slips by asking Vail to tell Venable he's sorry about her neck. But he shouldn't be able to remember he attacked her neck, since it was supposedly "Roy" who did it while Aaron blacked out. However, it's left open as to whether Aaron intentionally showed his hand so he could gloat with impunity.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Martin Vail is really good as manipulating people to win his cases. A better example is Roy, who was able to create a meek persona for years, and flawlessly manipulates even his own lawyer to cheat the justice system.
  • Master Actor: Aaron Stampler.
  • The Perry Mason Method: A variation, set up by Vail in order to prove Aaron's innocence; the prosecution badgers Aaron in an attempt to get him to confess, which causes Aaron's split personality to show up and attack her.
    • At least, that's what Aaron wanted you to think happened.
  • Rape By Proxy: The archbishop forced three young people to have sex on camera for him.
  • The Reveal:
    • Reveal #1: Aaron says that he "loses time" when severely stressed.
    • Reveal #2: Vail discovers a Home Porn Movie where the archbishop urged Aaron and another young man to have sex with a girl on camera. The archbishop was an Asshole Victim of the most special kind. The tape is a Smoking Gun that both serves to make Aaron sympathetic to the jury and provide a motive for the murder.
    • Reveal #3: Aaron appears to have another personality, the psychotic Roy, who admits to killing the archbishop out of revenge, and it is implied that his condition is caused by Abusive Parents.
    • Reveal #4: In the last scene of the movie, Aaron admits to have been only pretending to have a split personality - and it's the kind personality, not the violent one, that's fake. "Roy" gloats about killing both the archbishop and his girlfriend, who was also molested by the archbishop-and says that she had it coming.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: "Aaron" (Edward Norton) eerily does this at the end of the movie , when the attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), and us, the audience, discover that Aaron has been faking his split personality/insanity for the entire film- he is actually sane. However, due to attorney-client confidentiality, even when Vail now knows the truth he's powerless to do anything, as Ed Norton's character mocks him creepily from his cell.
  • Stuttering Into Eloquence: Aaron stutters almost every other word, except when he is (pretending to be) the much more aggressive "Roy".
  • Teen Genius: Aaron, possibly. At least, he's able to fool Vail and everyone else in order to get away with murder.
  • Unwitting Pawn: At the end, Vail realizes he just helped a cold-blooded murderer get away with it.
  • Wham Line: Right at the end Martin figures out that Aaron has tricked the court, and asks why he invented his killer personality "Roy". Aaron corrects his assumption.
    Aaron: There never was an "Aaron", counselor.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Vail is thoroughly disgusted by the fact that Aaron tells him "[they] fucking did it" about getting him off scot-free.


Mulholland FallsMysteryFiction/FilmL.A. Confidential
The Pillow BookFilms of the 1990sProject: ALF

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