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Film / Primal Fear

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This page is about the film starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton. For the trope, click here. For the band "Primal Fear", click here.
Not intended to be a lawyer joke.

Reporter: Marty, you are a master of putting the victim on trial to help your own client. That is going to be very difficult in this case.
Marty: The victim in this case is my client.

Primal Fear is a 1996 crime drama, directed by Gregory Hoblit and based on a novel of the same name by William Diehl.

Amoral Attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) defends an altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), accused of the brutal murder of an archbishop. Vail's ex-girlfriend, Janet Venable (Laura Linney), is prosecuting the case. At first only interested in the publicity of the case, Vail soon discovers that there is more to the case than meets the eye.

The movie proved to be Norton's Star-Making Role—in his feature film debut, no less.

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:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Aaron himself in the books ends up committing way more crimes beyond what he does here. In the book's sequels, Stampler commits more murders out of petty vengeance—including his own fellow abuse victims; throws in with a terrorist militia and before getting killed, arranges for a passenger plane to explode upon takeoff. Here though, Aaron's only goal is to get off for killing Rushman and while this could be because the sequels never got adapted, he still comes off as way more of an Anti-Villain—or not as bad a villain as he could be—as a result.
  • Affably Evil: When he is revealed to have been faking his multiple personality disorder, Aaron is still legit cheerful and warm to Vail for the most part. He's still clearly gracious even though he based the help he needed on both a lie and an act.
  • Ambulance Chaser: Martin takes on Aaron’s case because it is very high-profile. He assumes Janet has the same motives.
    Marty: Tell me, counselor: which one of us is the true headline chaser?
  • 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.
      Marty: 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.
      Marty: 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?
    • Shaughnessy straight up is this though, having thrown lives into poverty and outright taken them for political aspirations, especially when he concealed the truth about all the sexual abuse Rushman was committing.
  • Artistic License – Law: Both Vail and Venable call surprise witnesses and log evidence into the record during the trial while in Real Life, all of these would have to be brought before a judge before the trial begins.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Archbishop Rushman is revealed to be one when his video is found.
    • Aaron/Roy claims Linda was as well, but it’s unclear how true that is, especially considering Rushman was coercing her into having sex with multiple guys.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Aaron played everyone for a fool and escapes punishment.
  • Batman Gambit: Marty twice does this to Janet, and each time they discuss this trope.
    • Marty sends Janet the archbishop’s Home Porn Movie, knowing she needs it to establish motive and hoping it will gain Aaron sympathy from the jury. She recognizes Marty’s strategy but knowingly follows through, foiling his plan by portraying Aaron as understandably vengeful rather than understandably crazy.
      Janet: “You think you’ve got me? You think because you know me as well as you do, you know how I think. Well, I know how you think.”
    • Marty then puts Aaron on the stand, expecting Janet to interrogate him harshly and hoping that Roy will emerge.
      Janet: “You knew, didn’t you? You knew if I went after him, he’d wig out up there. … You used me.”
      Marty: “Yeah, I did. I had no choice. And what did I use that was so terrible? I knew you’d do your job. I knew you’d stand up to Shaughnessy. I knew you’d try to win the case. What’s wrong with that?
      Janet: “You cost me my fucking job!”
  • Break the Cutie: Aaron appears to be this, until the film's twist.
  • Break the Haughty: Martin Vail is a selfish, jerkass attorney who thinks he's smarter than everyone and takes cases based on profit and fame. But by the end of the film, he is led to care about a guy (Roy) who was playing him for a fool from the beginning. The final shot of Vail before the ending credits says it all.
  • The Butcher: Aaron is dubbed “The Butcher Boy.”
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Despite Janet's rough encounter with Roy, Judge Shoat won’t let Janet have a cigarette in her chambers. But as soon as Shoat leaves, Janet lights up anyway.
  • Clear Their Name: Aaron claims to be innocent and Vail eventually comes to believe him, despite overwhelming evidence against him and the fact that most people think he's guilty, seeking to prove it at his trial. He's wrong.
  • Corrupt Church: The archbishop records his sermon for the upcoming Sunday, and then forces homeless youth to have sex with each other while he records it. It’s also suggested that the Church was involved in some shady real estate deals.
  • Country Matters: Used in The Reveal, after Aaron reveals he killed Linda.
    Aaron: That cunt just got what she deserved.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Vail.
  • 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.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: A number of characters accuse Aaron of using his innocent, "boy scout" like appearance to hide his violent personality. They're right.
  • Fanservice: Subverted. The sex tape shows three VERY attractive people having a threescore, but it veers into Fan Disservice as all three are being coerced by an elderly bishop (who can also be heard giving stage directions).
  • Fatal Flaw: Martin Vail's narcissism.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Shaughnessy acts like he's this great political entrepreneur when Vail clearly knows the truth about him: he's a pompous, self-inflating corrupt figure who got people thrown out of their homes and let multiple victims of sexual assault go unspoken for years.
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Marty and Janet. Shaughnessy assigns Janet to the case, because he knows she and Marty used to date.
  • Foreshadowing: The closest Aaron comes to breaking character in his first meeting with Marty is when Marty comments how kind it was for Archbishop Rushman to allow Aaron to stay at Savior House past his 19th birthday. Aaron hesitates for a moment and then simply says, “Yes… Yes, it was.”
    • During Roy's first appearance, he looks at Martin Vail to see if he is buying the split personality act. When it's clear that he is, Roy says: "I got you figured out".
    • The Scarlet Letter reference carved in the chest of Archbishop Rushman’s corpse about a man who can "wear one face to himself and another for the multitude."
  • Freudian Excuse: Aaron supposedly created Roy to protect him from his abusive father, and Roy emerges anytime Aaron feels extremely threatened.
    • Keep in mind, though, that Dissociative Identity Disorder in the real world is believed to arise from child abuse, a fact that few movies depicting the condition recognize—ironically, given that this movie ultimately suggests Aaron does not have the disorder.
  • 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 pro bono (although it's also good publicity).
  • Gorn: Rushman’s murdered and mangled body.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality; In spades, and pretty much one of the main topic of the movie. Aaron really is a killer, but he actually had a very strong motive for his murders. Marty behaves like a very regular cynical laywer, and makes no mystery of his love for money and fame, but he ends up having his idealism and naiveté get in the way of his work. Archbishop Rushman abused young homeless people by forcing them to have sex in front of him on the threat of throwing them back on the streets, but we learn that he saved the homes of a whole neighborhood of mostly poor squatters when Shaughnessy was planning to requalify it and evict them all in the process. Pretty much only Shaughnessy is a complete asshole, and even if he ultimately had no connection at all with the murder, he indirectly caused it by not exposing Rushman's abuses when he had the chance.
    Roy: But killing that son of a bitch Rushman—that was a fuckin’ work of art.
  • 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 even less legal rights than someone on death row or serving a life sentence.
    • Split Personality is actually not considered a valid insanity defense in most places. It's not even recognized as a mental illness by many psychiatrists (who know that patients can fake it, consciously or not).
    • Illinois law does allow someone to change their plea mid-trial, unlike what Martin says.
    • 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 he also can't actually use that defense in another trial, as at that point he would be knowingly suborning perjury, another point the ending ignores. In any case, there's still no guarantee Aaron will 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 for revenge.
  • Home Porn Movie: One is discovered that puts the case in a whole new light.
  • Hyde Plays Jekyll: Technically subverted, since the "Jekyll" personality (Aaron) never existed to begin with-the Hyde (Roy) was making him up the whole time.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: after the reveal in court, Judge Shoat pours herself and Vail a drink in her chambers. He declines his, so she pours his drink into her own glass.
  • 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.
  • Inopportune Impersonation Failure: In the finale, Martin Vail has successfully convinced the jury that Aaron is actually suffering from multiple personality disorder and cannot be given the death penalty for what "Roy" did. However, in their final conversation, Aaron apologizes to Martin for Roy's attack on Janet Venable - accidentally contradicting his claim that he doesn't remember anything while Roy's in control... and when Martin points this out, Aaron drops his meek stutter and reverts to smug, self-satisfied gloating, revealing that it's not that there was never a Roy - it's that, as he puts it, "there never was an Aaron."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Marty truly cares for both Aaron and Piñero.
  • Killed Offscreen: Aaron reveals that he killed his girlfriend Linda, who is mentioned several times but never appears on-screen, aside from a recorded video.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Janet agrees to a mistrial, recognizing that neither she nor anyone in the DA’s office would want to try this case.
  • 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.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The look of horror on Marty's face as he processes Aaron/Roy's confession says it all.
  • Noodle Incident: Marty quit the State’s Attorney's office after Shaughnessy ordered him to do something against his conscience, but Marty never specifies what that was.
  • Not the First Victim: Before killing the Archbishop (the event that opens the movie), Aaron killed his "girlfriend" Linda offscreen.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Aaron portrays himself as a wholesome but not-too-bright farm boy with a stutter. He further claims that he found Hawthorne too hard to follow, so he couldn’t have underlined the passage.
  • Pedophile Priest: Technically averted, though the truth is still pretty despicable. Archbishop Rushman apparently only targets those in the youth home who have reached legal age, threatening them with expulsion and being thrown on the streets if they don’t perform in his Home Porn Movies.
  • 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.
  • Police Brutality: Marty states that the police almost killed Piñero on one occasion, and it’s heavily implied that it was the police who ultimately killed him.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • Roy's first appearance is him asking the psychologist in frustration, “How the fuck should I know?”
    • Janet yells at Marty that he cost her her "fucking job".
    • See Country Matters above for another example, as language that strong isn't anywhere else in the film.
  • Predatory Prostitute: Played with. Aaron was homeless when he was picked up by the Archbishop, meaning that he had monetary reasons for not being able to refuse when the Archbishop forced him to have sex with two other people on camera. Aaron then brutally murdered the Archbishop and his girlfriend Linda.
  • Quip to Black: This exchange at the end of a scene:
    Naomi: What does he look like—in person?
    Martin: The Butcher Boy? Like a Boy Scout.
    Tommy: A Boy Scout. With a merit badge in carving.
  • 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 coerced 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.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Janet’s tone throughout much of her cross examination of the psychologist.
    Janet: Oh I know, Doctor. It was Roy.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Aaron eerily does this at the end of the movie when Vail, and we in 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.
  • Sequel Hook: Much like the ending of this movie, the book’s two sequels indicate that this story in indeed far from over.
  • Sinister Minister: Archbishop Rushman.
  • Smoking Gun: Rushman’s sex tape.
  • Spotting the Thread: What Martin does at the end of the film, as Aaron did not actually "lose time" during Roy's attack on the prosecutor, as he'd mentioned her neck - information Aaron would otherwise not know.
  • 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.
  • Tempting Fate: Piñero refuses to leave town, despite the threat of police violence, claiming, “How can they kill a man who doesn’t sleep?”
  • Unwitting Pawn: At the end, Vail realizes he just helped a cold-blooded murderer get away with it.
  • Villain Respect: The ending, in which Roy applauds Martin for Spotting the Thread as quick as he does when he slips up.
  • Walking Spoiler: Roy.
  • 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. (wink)
  • 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.