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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.


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.
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 Martin Vail: First thing that I ask a new client is "Have you been saving up for a rainy day? Guess what? It's raining."

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    • On the idealistic hand, Vail also believes in the system and its ability to protect the innocent from wrongful punishment.
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 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.

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    • 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 Complete Monsters will get off scott 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.
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 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?

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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Hanging Judge: Hangin' Harry Shoat
  • Heel Realization: At the end, Vail realizes he just helped a cold-blooded murderer get away with it.
  • Hollywood Law: Let's put it this way. If you want to get away with a murder, you probably can. This is not the way to do it.
  • Hyde Plays Jekyll
  • 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.
    • It may not have been a slip. When Vail comes back to point out the "slip," Aaron seems happy that he figured it out. He wanted someone to know what he'd done, and he knew that, as his lawyer, Vail would be unable to do anything about it due to attorney-client privilege.
  • 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.
  • The Reveal:
    • Reveal #1: Aaron says that he "loses time" when severely stressed.
    • Reveal #2: Vail discovers a Home Porn Movie where the archbishop forced Aaron and several other boys to perform sexual acts on camera. The archbishop was an Asshole Victim of the most Special kind - a Pedophile Priest. The tape is a Smoking Gun that both serves to make Aaron sympathetic to the jury and provide a motive for 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: Aaron was actually faking his innocent persona all along. "Roy" is a Complete Monster who gloats about killing both the archbishop and his girlfriend, who was also molested by the archbishop - and says that he had only intended to kill his "slut" girlfriend; the archbishop was just a witness.
  • Stuttering Into Eloquence: Aaron stutters almost every other word, except when he is the much more agressive "Roy".
  • Teen Genius: Aaron, possibly. At least, he's able to fool Vail and everyone else in order to get away with murder.
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