Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)

23Jul10

Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden). Screenplay by Wesley Strick. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 18. Running time: 122 minutes.

Max Cady thinks he’s a Nietzschean Übermensch. We see Thus Spake Zarathustra on a shelf in his prison cell, and we’re told he’s reading it later on when he’s a free man again. He has also become, since entering jail, a devout Christian, as witnessed by his plethora of tattoos, showering his body in Biblical quotes of an unusually dark nature. Ignore the fact this seems to make him a walking contradiction; what matters is that it makes him demented. On his back he has the Cross, drawn with accompanying weighing scales balancing two things: the Bible, which is labelled the truth, and on the other side the word ‘justice.’ He thinks the latter was denied to him by the actions of his defence attorney, Sam Bowden. He hid information that could have spared Cady a fourteen year prison sentence for rape of a sixteen year old girl. Now he’s back to get real justice, and as his own value creator the interpretation of that word will be his alone.

I can see why Scorsese wanted to remake this. I don’t know the exact content of the original, but it must have outlined the potential for a film dominated by crime and human guilt, two topics he has used time and time again in the past and which also come to infiltrate this film. What’s different is that we’ve gone from the city and environments in which these type of things are more likely to happen, and for the first time Scorsese’s now giving us a home, suburban thriller. It just feels strange to have a real family in one of his films. But to get back to Cady’s notion of justice…

Naturally he is above the law, but he starts by playing safe: laughing as loud as possible in the cinema his old lawyer’s family are in and clouding the screen with smoke from his absurdly large Cuban cigars; observing their house, bordering on trespassing but always staying the right side of the fence. But then comes the real dark side, and there’s no looking back from this moment onwards. I’m not going to say what happens, because I genuinely think it is shocking. We don’t expect him to be quite as bad as he is when the moment arrives, and the result is just horrific. It’s disturbing beyond words.

The film provides plenty of moments like this first one. It does have its quieter moments, no more than the scene when he meets and seduces Bowden’s fifteen year old daughter. I appreciate this sounds lamely impossible, but it’s so well done and carefully written that it really doesn’t feel absurd. He doesn’t have to lay a forced finger upon her; she allows him to kiss her freely, which makes it even worse. But when contrasted with what soon follows, and some of the images we see of Cady as a madman on a bloody rampage, it’s a rare moment to say the least. Cape Fear is genuinely petrifying at times, and it’s all down to Cady’s psyche.

It’s easy to see the situations that intrigued Scorsese most. Cady can so casually be labelled the immoral one (obviously), and its simple to view everyone else as his victims. But whether Bowden himself is so pure is harder to discern than we would like, and Scorsese makes sure we see it. First, the point is that it’s the duty of a defense lawyer to provide all information that will benefit his defendant’s case, regardless of how convinced he personally is regarding his guilt. Second, Bowden resorts to vigilantism to try and sort Cady out, and this is far from the behaviour of someone who is supposed to have a commitment to the law. It’s Cady that brings out this side to Bowden, and, regardless of what a true bastard the former is, the latter is way too far from nobility to be sympathised with too much either.

I think this is the point of Cape Fear. But if its intent was simply to be horrifying, then it does a pretty good job at that as well.

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