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Primal Fear is a legal drama and courtroom thriller starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton. It launched Norton’s career and earned him an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award. Primal Fear focuses on Chicago Defense Attorney Martin Vail (Gere) as he tries to prove the innocence of Aaron Stampler (Norton), a 19-year old altar boy accused of murdering a Catholic archbishop (Stanley Anderson).
Primal Fear’s legacy mainly ties to Norton’s standout performance and the twist ending. It's one of my favorite movies and Norton is one of my favorite actors, so no matter how many times I see it, I’m always impressed by the final scenes of the movie.
Let’s take a deep dive into Primal Fear’s shocking ending.
Spoiler Warning: Primal Fear plot and ending details coming up next.
What Happened At The End?
Vail wants to prove Aaron’s innocence by arguing that he has dissociative identity disorder. To prove this, Vail has Aaron take the stand and then tries to provoke him to get his other personality, Roy, to appear. Vail’s attempts alone don’t work, so he lets prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney) interrogate Aaron.
As expected, her tough approach leads to Aaron bringing out Roy, who attacks Janet in court. This leads to Aaron getting a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. He’ll be transferred to a maximum-security mental health facility. Janet points out earlier in the movie that that sentence will likely lead to him only being locked up for a few months.
After winning the trial, Vail goes to see Aaron in his cell. Aaron claims that he doesn’t remember what happened in court, but Aaron slips up and tells Vail to tell Janet that he hopes her neck is okay. While heading out, it all clicks in Vail’s head and he goes back to confront Aaron. Aaron admits that he doesn’t have dissociative identity disorder. Instead, his real personality is the Roy one and he also killed Linda (Azalea Davila), the woman the archbishop made have sex with Aaron and other men.
The Anti-Hollywood Ending
Many people, myself included, only remember the Aaron confession ending, but more happens after it. Martin, truly feeling defeated, rushes out the prison, avoids the media storm, and just heads out where no one can see him. Primal Fear then rolls the credits after a shot of Martin looking devastated. In a 2019 episode of the ReelBlend podcast, CinemaBlend sat down with Edward Norton and he shared that he was impressed by Richard Gere’s approach to the ending.
I was very very impressed by Richard Gere. Specifically, because there was a lot of chatter and pressure around that production about the ending. And about the idea that it should be reshot, or we should do it differently. That he should win.
Norton further noted that:
Literally, the ideas were as bad as he should punch out the kid. You should realize he’s gonna nail him. He should have a recorder on him and be busting him. All these things. And all it was was this like terror. And Richard was the one who really stood firm. Almost to the point of refusing to do anything else. He was like ‘Did anybody see what we just did here?!” He was kind of pointing at me, and he was like ‘this is how you use me to best effect.’ Because I’m slick, it’s a body blow. ‘The last shot of the movie is me standing with my shoulders sagging, punched in the face. And that’s it’. And I was like, that is really cool. This is not ‘I need to come out on top, I need to win. My character.’ We made the movie work.
Primal Fear is as memorable as it is because of the Aaron ending and Vail being so defeated in that moment. Any other ending would have completely changed the impact and gut-punch felt by the audience along with Vail. With most Hollywood movies, we expect the “good guys” to win, and sometimes a film falls flat because viewers feel betrayed when this doesn’t happen. Primal Fear is one of those rare movies where it works better because the villain wins in the end.
The Double Sides Of Martin Vail
Primal Fear plays a lot with the idea of duplicity and double nature. We see this with Archbishop Rushman, and then infamously with Aaron. However, the film’s running theme is Martin Vail’s double nature. The film starts with him portraying himself as this hotshot lawyer. He loves the media attention--as it starts with him being interviewed for a profile piece. He also has a healthy approach to the people he defends: he doesn’t care if they’re guilty or innocent.
Vail’s driving force at the beginning of the movie seems to be the glory of winning a case. As Primal Fear progresses, viewers see Vail shed his act. He actually cares a lot about his clients. We see this with Aaron and Pinero (Steven Bauer). He cares too much, which is why he’s able to be manipulated by Aaron. Vail also admits (off the record) to the interviewer that he takes these cases because he thinks good people sometimes do bad things. This is why Vail takes such an emotional hit when Aaron reveals his true self to be the Roy character. He won the case but lost that sense of comfort that good people do bad things.
How Martin Helped Aaron’s Defense
Martin’s desire for his client’s innocence is partly one of the driving forces in his defense. A careful watch of Primal Fear shows many times where Martin unintentionally helps Aaron construct his dissociative personality disorder defense. He says and does things that hint to Aaron what he needs him to do to win the case. Aaron even points this out during the final reveal. One major example is the final courtroom scene when Martin not-so-subtly tries to get Aaron to bring out Roy.
Martin’s friend and psychiatrist Molly (Frances McDormand) also helps Aaron develop his story, and Janet even points out that Molly is more of an academic than a practicing psychiatrist, a practicing one may have been able to detect Aaron’s manipulation. Neither are intentionally trying to help him get away with murder, but I believe that they have both already formed their own beliefs about Aaron and he’s just reading them enough to give them what he knows they want.
What’s The Primal Fear In The Movie?
Aaron is the villain of the film, but adding to the doubleness of the movie, he’s also still a victim. The film doesn’t go into detail, but it’s mentioned that Aaron was abused by his father before ending up on the streets. He’s also abused by Archbishop Rushman. There is a chance that the innocent Aaron could have been the real Aaron at some point, but a cycle of abuse and the need to survive may have created the monster that is Roy-Aaron.
The way I see the term primal fear in relation to the movie is survival instincts. Aaron has had to adapt all his life to survive circumstances beyond his control and this has led to a cold-blooded killer, which may be the most basic sense of surviving in the wild. There is a chance that Aaron is just a psychopath who enjoys killing, but all the film’s evidence seems to point to him becoming a killer as part of his evolution, not his initial nature. The title could also go to Martin’s primal fear and that’s why he put on this mask when it comes to his clients. It’s a way to deal with these crimes without letting them get to him, but that comes crumbling at the end.
Edward Norton Knew Audiences Wouldn't Know What To Make Of His Character
In an interview with SiriusXM, Norton talks about how he was able to create Aaron and essentially trick the audience. He said that “I knew no one would know what to make of it, because no one has seen you in anything.” He went on to say he enjoys movies where the audience experiences the same feelings as the main character, and they are Gere in this movie, seeing Aaron as a poor kid who needs their help. Gere and the audience experience the same shock at the end.