The purpose of Primal Fear may surprise you. Because that purpose doesn’t have much to do with the murder-mystery-thriller part of the plot. Yes, that makes up the majority of the story and what we’re interested in while watching Primal Fear. But it’s not the purpose of Primal Fear.
If the murder-mystery-thriller part of the movie was the point, then it would have ended with the reveal Roy (Edward Norton) had faked the stuttering, stammering, dopey Aaron Stampler and was actually a sociopathic, criminal mastermind who has just gotten away with murder. You know what movie does end that way? The Usual Suspects. Because the whole point of The Usual Suspects is the murder-mystery thriller plot and the twist that comes at the end.
Same thing with Se7en (Seven). There are themes and emotional subplots in Se7en, but ultimately the movie builds to the conclusion of the murder-mystery-thriller and ends at the twist.
Instead, in Primal Fear, we have this extra minute where Martin Vail (Richard Gere), stunned by the Aaron/Roy revelation, finds himself in the lobby of the courthouse. Out front, there’s a media swarm waiting for an interview with Vail. They think Vail’s a hero-lawyer who just saved a young man from the death penalty and revealed deep corruption in the local clergy. Which is accurate.
Vail knows the truth, though—he fell for the manipulations of a psychopath. So rather than going out the front door and dealing with the media, he leaves out the back. Where there’s no one. He’s completely alone. It’s cold. Empty. Sad. And that’s the end of Primal Fear.
Why end like that?
Because, as I said, Primal Fear was never really about the murder and court case. It’s actually about Martin Vail and deconstructing his character—changing him from someone who desires adulation to someone who runs from it.
The rise and fall of Martin Vail
At the start of the movie, Vail’s presented as a slick, self-confident, high-power defense attorney who helps shady people avoid justice and gets paid very well to do so. But there’s a tension, as he had been a prosecutor working on behalf of the people.
Who is the true Martin Vail? Is he a well-intentioned, good-hearted person who grew disgusted with the politics of the district attorney’s office? Or is he completely self-interested and attention-seeking, more concerned with his own growing rockstar reputation than having any semblance of a moral compass?
For most of Primal Fear, Vail’s character development is a subplot to the main plot of whether or not Aaron Stampler actually murdered Archbishop Rushman. Vail becomes Stampler’s lawyer for the sake of the limelight it will bring. A Chicago Archbishop murdered by an altar boy? That’s national news, television interviews, and everything Vail’s ego could ask for.
But the case reveals his core nature. Vail cares. And he does everything in his power to not only make sure Aaron’s found not guilty but that District Attorney Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) doesn’t bury the truth of the Archbishop’s personal and political abuse.
Right before Aaron makes the big confession, Vail was ecstatic. He had just won the most significant court case of his career. And it took all of his intelligence, confidence, and skill. It was a seemingly insurmountable situation, with Aaron potentially getting the death penalty. But against all odds, Vail was able to save the young man’s life by proving the existence of a secondary personality. It cost him friendships, a potential relationship, and a lot of stress—but he won.
This was meaningful for Vail. As he had essentially been representing Tony Soprano types—mafia guys and wealthy people who are obviously guilty. Several characters bring this up to Vail, even saying he’s someone who puts the victim on trial, wondering how he justifies it. Even if some of the clients fall into the “gangster with a heart of gold” trope, it’s clear Vail’s not doing much work with innocent people. Saving Aaron would be the first truly selfless thing Vail has done as a defense attorney.
And he does so knowing that it’ll make him an enemy of the DA. That his demands have driven his investigator and paralegal mad. And that he’s using the positive morality of the prosecutor, Janet Venable (Laura Linney). Because of Vail’s machinations, Janet ends up in harm’s way with Roy and ultimately loses her job in the DA’s office. So Vail sacrifices political capital, loyalty capital, and potentially any hope of re-igniting his relationship with Janet.
Vail’s desperate to prove to himself that he’s still capable of doing good and hasn’t wasted his career. He’s fighting not just for Aaron, but for his own soul. That’s what makes the twist so brutal. It’s not that Vail fell prey to a trick. It’s that he had bet so much on the innocence of Aaron that finding out Aaron’s nothing more than a decoy Roy made up to fool everyone—to realize you not only fell for it but you helped everyone else fall for it—is devastating. Imagine seeking redemption, only to find out you successfully saved the devil.
With that, Martin Vail breaks. Instead of being able to bask in his success and the national fame that would come from such a victory, he hides. And you get the sense this won’t be momentary. That Vail’s not going to bounce back and move on. This is something that will haunt him for a very long time.
Is that it then?
To answer that question, we have to get into the nature of themes. Stories can have
- no overall theme
- a more specific theme that’s open to interpretation
- a specific theme that isn’t really open to interpretation.
Like No Country for Old Men is very much about getting older and no longer being able to keep up with the world. The cat-and-mouse game between Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem is only there to show how beyond his prime Tommy Lee Jones is as the sheriff. Jones opens the movie and closes the movie, but he’s largely missing from the middle because he can’t keep up. He’s too old. Too slow. And his inability to save Brolin causes Jones such a crisis that he retires afterwards. So while No Country has a lot of themes you can point to about crime, greed, fate, violence, etc., the main purpose of the story is to reflect on the powerlessness that comes with aging. Specific theme not really open to interpretation.
Or take The Wolf of Wall Street. It walks a line between glorifying and deriding the crimes and fraud and decadent lifestyle of Jordan Belfort. The movie wants you to think Belfort’s an asshole. It really does. But at the same time, it continually positions him as this charismatic underdog hero. Some critics and viewers weren’t happy about that. Belfort’s a real person who committed a lot of financial fraud that cost a lot of regular people their life savings and more. Why glorify him?
In the final scene of Wolf of Wall Street, you get your answer. Belfort, fresh out of jail, is on stage at a sales seminar. The room is packed with eager, nervous New Zealanders who paid money for this opportunity. Belfort goes through the crowd asking individuals to sell him a pen. None of them do a good job. It’s almost painful to listen to them. So much so that even the camera drifts away, as if in disbelief. But it looks at the rest of the very ordinary crowd, these people who are desperate to learn from Belfort some secret that will change their lives forever.
That crowd is the key to the movie. They can symbolize a number of things. Like:
- The fascination people have with the wealthy and successful. The desire to be like a Jordan Belfort, but lacking all the positive and negative traits that allows a Wolf to “succeed.” That desire can overwhelm the disgust you should probably feel and the alarms you should probably hear when dealing with Belfort types. This extends not just to the people in the room, but to the viewer as well. We should hate Jordan, but DiCaprio is so charming and funny you’re more likely to be entertained than reviled, you’re more likely to listen to him than walk away.
- Or more simply: there’s a world full of marks that Belfort and other wolves can take advantage of.
- Or because that last seminar takes place in New Zealand, you can make a connection to the relationship other countries have with America. They’re grossed out by our decadence but still drawn to it.
Where No Country is specifically about how you age out of being useful to society and powerful within society, Wolf of Wall Street is a little more open in how you interpret the final scene. It certainly has to do with American culture and the fascination people have with wealth and the wealthy, but there’s still room for interpretation.
Compare those to something like the recent run of Mission Impossible movies. While Tom Cruise continues to entertain us with his death-defying antics, the MI series isn’t known for meditating on the human condition. And just to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with not having a core thematic pursuit.
So, Primal Fear.
If we’re looking for a existential or cultural critique in Primal Fear, the potential takeaways are things like:
- Don’t have an ego
- Sometimes in trying to find redemption, you find destruction.
- People will trick you
- Problematic people can’t be redeemed
- Success can sometimes mean failure
- Be careful what you wish for
- We can’t always trust the institutions or leaders people put their faith in
But none of those feel right to me. They’re too simplistic or cheesy to fit with the very specific situation Vail’s in.
There’s something about the idea of facing corruption, and the cost of bringing down corruption, and can you live with that cost? But I just don’t think the story quite coalesces around that idea enough for me to make a case in the same way I can for other films. It’d be one thing if Vail was wanting to expose the Archbishop and DA before Aaron came around and represented Aaron as a means to an end, no matter the cost. But that’s not what happens.
With all that said, I think Martin Vail’s character journey is strong enough that ending in such a brutal fashion is powerful. You don’t need a thematic addition to that. You could have one. But it’s not necessary. It can be enough to just see someone experience extreme highs and extreme lows without there being a deeper meaning to it.
Curious about Attorney-client privilege in Primal Fear? I talk about it! Click here
And are you interested in what Primal Fear can teach you about writing, story structure, and “show, don’t tell?” Then click here!