Cape Fear (1991) / Thriller

MPAA rated: R for strong violence, strong sexual content, drug use involving a teen, and language
Length: 128 min.

Cast: Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Fred Dalton Thompson, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Wesley Strick (based on the screenplay by James R. Webb, and the John D. MacDonald book, "The Executioners")
Review published February 11, 2013

Cape Fear 1991 Robert De NiroMartin Scorsese's lucrative follow-up to Goodfellas sees the director in more of an experimental mood, and the result is intriguing, beguiling and frustrating at the same time. It's a remake of a noir-ish 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck as the family man and lawyer, and Robert Mitchum as the man who feels wronged out to destroy him. Scorsese ups the malevolence to near-horror film levels, and boosts the sexual politics, giving Cape Fear an additionally terrifying aspect in order to effectively make the audience wince whenever the bad guy is on the screen.

Max Cady (De Niro, Midnight Run) gets released after spending the last 14 years in a Georgia penitentiary for a battery charge (downgraded from rape) of a 16-year-old girl, and proceeds to visit the home town of Sam Bowden (Nolte, 48 Hrs.), the public defender who was assigned to his losing case. After discovering that Bowden may have buried testimony that may have gotten him off the hook, Cady begins to harass him and his family in increasingly menacing ways, until Bowden feels so threatened that he just might go above the law to protect himself, especially when Cady gets into the minds of Bowden's wife, Leigh (Lange, Tootsie), and 15-year-old daughter, Danielle (Lewis, Christmas Vacation).

As with his comedy After Hours and his later work Shutter Island, Scorsese borrows quite a bit from Hitchcock in his approach, starting with the Vertigo-esque Saul Bass opening credits playing out with Elmer Bernstein (The Grifters, Funny Farm) recreating the original Bernard Herrmann score used in the original 1962 film, which is used throughout this update. In fact, the entire film could be seen as a hybrid between the original Cape Fear and Hitch's Shadow of a Doubt, about a criminal with evil intentions inside wreaking havoc on the goodly people in a small town, and how it affects one particular family and the young woman he makes a connection with. As with the old Hollywood films it is inspired by, matte-style backdrops occasionally fill the screen, suggesting something otherworldly about Cady's appearance and demeanor that gets right down to the psychological underpinnings of the main story.

One of the key differences in the 1991 version of Cape Fear comes through the flawed family of protagonists, especially of the father who has let down his wife before through notions of infidelity, and has scolded his daughter for things that he and Leigh had done themselves in their youth. Cady is able to take these insecurities and dysfunction and drive a wedge through them, continuously putting Bowden on the spot both inside and outside the home, as he begins to lose the psychological tug-of-war for who is right and wrong in each situation, and forcing him to confront his sins in front of his own family. It also paints a flawed picture of the judicial and penal system as a place where few actually get justice and victims are also dragged through the mud in the process, making them not want to step forward even when heinous violence is enacted against them.

Even if the film takes some strange turns, some of them for the worse story-wise, it is always interesting and riveting because the stakes seem so high, while the actors are intensely committed to their roles. De Niro gets into amazing shape for his role, as he has done in the past for such features as Raging Bull, and we see his cut and tattooed body transforms into a self-made killing machine. It does take some getting used to De Niro's attempt at a Southern drawl, but his character is so bizarre that we just go with the flow and accept that the normally street-tough actor would play a long-haired, Bible-thumping hillbilly. Scorsese sets up his menace early, with the brutal assault on a law clerk (Douglas, Message in a Bottle) who is involved in dallying with a romance with Bowden. The scene involving the battery is so heinous that it shades his conduct the rest of the film, as we can hardly look to see just what he might do with Bowden's wife, and in one key scene in which Cady pretends to be Leigh's drama teacher, his seduction of a naive 15-year-old girl (Lewis, though looking a bit older, embodies the shy expressions and behavior of a teenage girl perfectly). In terms of on-screen creeps, De Niro's Max Cady is one of the very creepiest.

Both De Niro and Lewis would receive Oscar nods for their performances, but equally good is a frustrated Nick Nolte, both sympathetic and smarmy in an approach that makes you like him while also disenchanted by his weakness of character at the same time. Jessica Lange is also quite good as the jaded spitfire of a wife, still sexually alluring, but savvy in her dealings with the likes of both of the men involved in this tug-of-war of wills. Robert Mitchum (Scrooged), Gregory Peck (Mackenna's Gold) and Martin Balsam (All the President's Men), who were all involved in the 1962 production, make satisfying cameo appearances.

The climax on a houseboat goes for a dark, violent climax, with some rather unsavory developments that may delve too dark and demented for some viewers. The use of miniatures is sometimes a bit obvious, though not entirely without keeping with the knowing artifice employed in earlier scenes. The result goes a bit over the top, but given the horror-flick leanings of some of the earlier material, I don't believe that Scorsese pushes it beyond the breaking point of plausibility, though he does give it a valiant effort. Traversing a slippery slope, but Scorsese keeps it together enough to close out the film leaving you with the same ominous feeling, that gnawing fear, in the pit of your stomach that you entered it with. 
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo