His body seems sculpted out of stone, littered with biblical tattoos telling of vengeance and justice. After 14 years in prison for rape, Max Lady is finally free, and the only thing prison has done has allowed him to learn how to read, how to think, and how to plan his revenge.
“You will know About loss.”
Cape Fear was Martin Scorsese’s first remake, and while he stays true to the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, his vision is overloaded with a nihilistic mean streak. It’s just as much a horror film – about an unstoppable monster with what seems to be supernatural powers at times – as it is a straight thriller. At times it exists in a heightened sense of reality, made whole by the elevated, borderline manic performances from everyone involved.
The two central players are Nick Nolte’s Samuel Bowden, an attorney who once defended a hayseed rapist named Max Cady, played by Scorsese’s first muse, Robert De Niro. The charges were too much for Bowden to defend, so he railroaded Cady to a conviction, thinking Cady was too dim to ever understand what had happened. Bowden never imagined his client would spend his days behind bars learning to read, learning the law, and figuring out what happened during his trial.
And now he is out, and he seeks his pond of flesh. Not only from Bowden, but from Bowden’s family, which is anything but fully functioning. This is where the moral cloudiness of the film digs deep into these flawed characters, creating no honest hero. Bowden and his wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), are having problems because of Bowden’s infidelities; their daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), is inching closer and closer to her own sexual awareness, and the trio feel perpetually on edge. And when Max Cady makes his presence felt in their sweat-soaked southern lives, the tension reaches a boil.
Cape Fear volleys between suspense and horror with a gleeful meanness. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who must have been working with their own personal language by 1991, manage their cuts masterfully. At times the movement is frenetic, and at others it is patient and practically stationery. Consider the scene between Cady and Daneille, in Danielle’s school auditorium. Cady has set up this fake meeting, claiming to be the drama teacher, and as he and Danielle share an incredibly unnerving conversation, Scorsese’s camera stays motionless and Danielle slowly realizes who this man actually is. This, coupled with the Little Red Riding Hood backdrop, create an incredible sense of unease.
This scene manages to creep into your consciousness and burrow, all the while chaos unfolds on either side. What’s more, this moment compromises Bowden’s leverage as Cady manipulates his own daughter, confusing her allegiance.
The third act of the film aboard the houseboat is Scorsese leaning into the heightened realism he’d been working with the entire time. As the boat swirls madly through a tempest and even more insanity unfolds inside the cabin, the audience is put through the ringer. And De Niro’s Max Cady becomes a supernatural force of anger and vengeance; it is a towering, scenery-chewing performance from an actor who knows exactly the right notes to hit.
Everyone in Cape Fear elevates their performances to match this southern gothic horror. After 25 years, it remains one of Scorsese’s most blatantly stylistic works, heightened in its kinetic energy much like his Shutter Island did in 2009. And, like Shutter Island, Cape Fear may be seen as Minor Scorsese; that doesn’t change the major impact it has had on its viewers since 1991.