The film's tagline says "Don't believe everything you see," but you can believe Kraig Taylor-Bryant's views on Primal Fear (some spoilers)...
Primal Fear, the theatrically genius movie written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman and directed by Gregory Hoblit is an incredibly well put together film, to put it mildly. Primal Fear is based around the allegedly deranged character of Aaron Stampler, played by Edward Norton, and primarily focuses on his defence attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere).
At the start of the film we’re introduced to the character of Martin Vail through an interview of sorts that a journalist is having with him, in which he discusses things he learned from his own mentor in law school. He mentions that his mentor told him “if you wanna get fucked, go to the courtroom” (apologies for the language). This is one of a few quotes that I love about this film, because on the second watch, not only did see this quote as somewhat foreshadowing what would come later, but also an overall summary of the characters we meet, in this gripping thriller.
The film is essentially, from here, about a case involving the alleged murder of Archbishop Rushman, which Aaron Stampler is not only accused of, but could be facing the death penalty for it. As the case progresses things become a little more blurred as, despite Vail beginning to believe that Stampler may be innocent, evidence continually makes itself known that could mean otherwise, the biggest of which being his motive. Vail discovers the motive in the form of a video tape and learns that the archbishop was getting his choir boys (of which Stampler was also a part), to perform sexual acts, to please the Archbishop. Eventually as the story goes on, it seems like Stampler may actually be insane, allegedly having multiple personality disorder, which leads Martin Vail to begin to fight for an insanity plea of sorts. They win this, though only at the end would we find that this was all a ruse so that Stampler could eventually go free, following a psychological evaluation.
I think the line of “you wanna get fucked go to the courtroom” applies to the many characters we see in the courtroom across the entire Aaron Stampler case. One of the characters even being the mysterious “Shaughnessy” played by John Mahoney. His character, we come to learn, has secrets of his own, seeming like the guy who wants to put bad people in jail at the start, though during the Stampler case, Vail brings to light some evidence that Shaughnessy knew about the sexual acts that the archbishop forced Aaron to perform in front of him. Not only this, but the film makes it abundantly clear that the reason Martin Vail’s bringing this news to light, is to settle a debt that Vail feels like he owes to Shaughnessy, for having someone killed, who was intended to testify to the court, regarding some of Shaughnessy’s mysterious behaviour. Eventually Vail would reveal not only that Shaughnessy knew about the Archbishops sexual acts, but that he backed out of a project that caused his company to lose sixty million dollars, damaging his reputation as a businessman, a generally as a person. I think the fact that Shaughnessy’s career was clearly damaged by the Stampler case is a clear representation as to why the quote of many ‘being screwed over in the courtroom’ is significant to the film.
Another person that suffers throughout the case, is Martin Vail’s ex-lover, and prosecutor during the Stampler case, Janet Venable (Laura Linney). I honestly think that Venable is an interesting character because she represents everything that Martin Vail used to be, before he decided to become a defence attorney, and seeing them fight in the courtroom helps to make it obvious as to where Martin Vail learned his method of defending one person, by then planting suspicion on another, and I think the way Venable treats Aaron, is what shows us exactly how Martin would have played this case, if he were the prosecutor. Anyway, throughout the case, it seems like Venable is suffering, finding little motive for Stampler killing the archbishop, until presented with the Archbishop’s sexual tape. Though when she does eventually show the tape, she is seeming “attacking the church” by doing so, as the tape is discrediting a powerful member of the Church community. Towards the end of the film, when she loses the case anyway, she is out of job, thereby showing how the case also screwed her over, which proved to have even more severe consequences, considering the revelation that Stampler did in fact kill the Archbishop.
Anyway, a little less obvious of a person who was screwed over by this case, was the judge herself, Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard). When Martin Vail decides to use the Stampler case to ruin Shaughnessy, Judge Shoat makes it very clear later on, that her courtroom is being mocked, by him, hence the reason why she has to fine Mr Vail for his actions. It’s obvious that she doesn’t suffer as much as everyone else, but the fact is, everyone around Vail suffers, because of the way he went about defending someone who wasn’t innocent, thereby screwing over the courtroom and its judge.
The fact that everything about this film revolves around Martin Vail is what makes this film so clever, the way that Vail develops over the film is even more intriguing. At the start of the film, when he meets Aaron Stampler, it seems like he doesn’t care so much about the people he defends, believing that ‘there is no truth’ only the truth you create for the jury, and simply put, the defendant is just meant to do their job, that ‘right or wrong’ doesn’t matter. Though as Martin spends more time around Aaron, he starts to believe that Stampler is innocent, and with the audience also hearing story, we can’t help but feel this way as well. It’s almost like Aaron is converting us to believe in him in a way, before we’re eventually forced to re-evaluate everything, when Aaron reveals that he was never insane when he killed the Archbishop. At one point in the film when Vail is drunk he mentions to his interviewer that he believes in the inner goodness of even the worst people, and I think this story is meant to tell us and Martin Vail that there are some people who just don’t have that inner goodness anymore.
When it came to Edward Norton’s portrayal of Aaron, I thought it was near flawless. Before watching this film, I could never believe that an actor could portray three different kinds of one character, in one film. In this film Norton plays Roy, the alternate personality of Aaron, and of course plays Aaron. But he also has to play the broken and confused man that Aaron is at the end of the film, a man that’s tricked himself into believing that he is Roy, a man who’s literally come to believe in his own quote, and my favourite line in the film, “No man, for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally being bewildered as to which may be true.”
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Images - IMDb