In the 1996 movie Primal Fear, the opening scene shows the altar boy Aaron Stampler running away from the cops after murdering an archbishop. He's eventually caught and brought into custody.

Incident 1: The defense attorney Martin Vail decides to help Aaron and he plays a crucial role in getting Aaron a verdict leaning to his side at the end. The issue is, this solely relies on the fact that Vail accidentally sees the live telecast of Aaron being chased while Vail is having drinks in a bar.

Incident 2: Aaron's girlfriend Linda is found murdered. Aaron later admits to Vail at the end, that he was the one who killed her.

I had to kill Linda, Mr. Vail. That cunt just got what she deserved.

This does not align with Aaron's motives as Linda had not done anything wrong to Aaron, unlike the archbishop (notice he says she got what she deserved). Also, this can be counterproductive in 2 ways: One, in any case the clues lead to Aaron, that would mean extra trouble for him since he had already killed one person. Two, an extra witness that suffered the same sexual abuse as Aaron would have increased his chances of getting a friendly verdict.

Incident 3: Aaron (who's actually Roy pretending to be Aaron in the court) snaps and takes the prosecutor Janet Venable hostage during the court proceedings. Even though this convinces the jury that Aaron has another personality who tend to be violent, this relies on the fact that prosecutor keeps questioning him aggressively for him to start his act and the jury buying into his performance. Has he had planned this performance even before he entered the courtroom?

My question is, what's Aaron (Roy)'s end goal? What was his plan to evade justice had Vail not intervened? Even after he managed to convince the jury that he had multiple personality disorder, he still got the verdict to be sent to a mental hospital. So what exactly he targeted to gain here?

2 Answers 2


Aaron's plans and fate are peripheral to the movie's central concern

I think @NapoleonWilson nails the plot explanation. I'd like to offer an alternative theory based on information outside the film.

As I describe in this other answer:

Primal Fear was specifically concerned with the role of the reputations of high-profile defense attorneys. The historical context matters: the movie came about about 4 years after the O.J. trial. That was a time when it seemed the whole country knew everything about the lawyers and courtroom staff.

To paraphrase myself further: Primal Fear went to a lot of trouble to create a situation that required a high-powered defense attorney to confess on the record that he is a cunning mercenary who cynically exploits the weaknesses of our criminal justice system for the benefit of whoever is rich enough to bankroll his lavish lifestyle.

Why do I say that was the movie's goal?

As I mentioned, this movie was born in the aftermath of the O.J. trial. It was natural for the millions of Americans watching that trial to wonder about the dangers of lawyers like Martin Vail when it appeared that a real football player got away with real murders simply because he was able to afford the services of legal professionals who seemed to not care that they were helping a murderer escape punishment.

Reasonable people might be able to disagree whether that is actually what happened in the O.J. trial, or whether the outcome was just, but it is undeniable that the real trial prompted American society to wonder whether, as a general proposition, skilled-but-greedy lawyers are a weakness in our justice system.

Primal Fear is best understood as a variation on that theme. It tries to present a perfect storm: an unstoppable and unscrupulous defense lawyer whose self interest aligns with that of an equally cunning and manipulative violent criminal.

It is telling that in both cases, the accused had to scramble to put together a plan to avoid punishment. Both defendants realized vastly better outcomes only because they had access to amazingly skilled lawyers, not because their innocence was easy to prove or because they planned their crimes carefully. Aaron's crime is just a caricature of the crimes that O.J. was charged with, and so was his unpreparedness in the moments immediately after the killings. Aaron Stampler runs from the scene of the crime, covered in blood, and hides under a highway overpass? That's his plan?? It's almost as hopeless as... running away from the police in a low-speed car chase as news helicopters track your movements for 45 minutes.

Viewed in this light, Primal Fear doesn't actually care whether Aaron had a plan before his path crossed Martin's, or whether his plan was credible, or whether it succeeded. All it needs from Aaron is that (1) he is genuinely an unrepentant and violent danger to society who (2) has the self-awareness and social skills necessary to present himself in whatever way best serves his amoral lawyer's legal strategy. The movie's raison d'etre is captured in that one moment from the trial that you highlight as Incident 3 in your question:

[Aaron] snaps and takes the prosecutor Janet Venable hostage during the court proceedings

That moment is probably the point that Martin Vail comes closest to being party to a conspiracy to defraud the court, which is not only morally outrageous but also an extremely serious crime in itself.

It is also precisely the fear that had been occupying the American imagination ever since the term "Dream Team" was used to refer to O.J.'s legal defense team. Ask yourself why the movie is called "Primal Fear." What fear did you think it was referring to? The movie is not a scary movie. There aren't really any jump scenes, or gory massacres.

I believe the fear being described as "primal" is this: that the American legal system is powerless before the wealthy, and that our society actually permits one group of people to kill the people in their lives without consequence. In America, the very rich do live above the law. They often pay no taxes. They practically dictate our laws. Some of them even grab random women by the p****. America "lets them do it." This would not be possible without people like Martin Vail.

You will have to decide for yourself whether the film's conclusion tends to exonerate or damn the skilled-but-greedy legal professionals it's so concerned with, or the larger legal and socioeconomic systems they inhabit. Vail is repelled when he sees what Aaron truly is, but a reasonable person might say that's too little, too late. Aaron is not released back into the public, but neither does he receive a sentence that seems commensurate with his act, or compatible with justice or even public safety. Is that good enough? Does the real world tend to do better, or worse?


I don't think Aaron's plan necessarily relied on Martin Vail jumping into the case. It could have worked with the publicly assigned defender too, it might just have been harder. But playing a lunatic (or even just a shy innocent boy at the beginning) is always advantageous, no matter how things go exactly. The same goes for the exact events of his plan, like Ms. Venable pressing him on at the end. He might not have planned out everything exactly like it happened, but it certainly worked to his advantage. And he turned out to be quite calculating and likely able to improvise things quickly. He also found a really strong partner in Martin that made things work out really well, but that too was somewhat improvisation on Aaron's part.

The way you put me on the stand like that, that was brilliant. The whole "act-like-a-man" thing. I knew what you wanted. It was like we were dancing, Marty!

We don't exactly know how much he planned everything. Maybe he started with just playing a shy boy and improvised the rest later, or maybe he planned the whole duplicate personality act from the beginning. All we know is that everything worked out for him in the end also because he got Martin Vail to defend him, which yes, might have been luck. Would he really have been able to account for everything from the start, he might as well just had planned the murder better to not get caught in the first place. But once he did so, playing a shy innocent boy was the next best thing to do, until playing a lunatic became an even better idea.

Also, it definitely turned out better for him in the end. He's not sent into life sentence or even death penalty (as Shaughnessy wanted), rather than a few months of psychiatric ward (if not even just one), after which he is likely set free.

And as to Linda. I actually think that he indeed blamed her somehow and killed her for being a "cunt", even though we know she was forced into all this like Aaron was. But as intelligent as he might be, he is certainly also agressive and not quite sane. It's not unlikely he projected emotions like jealousy onto her even though she wasn't responsible for anything. Or maybe there was also some kind of triangle involved with Alex (the other boy).

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