Cape Fear (1991)

reviewed by
Jerry Saravia

CAPE FEAR (1991)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
October 30th, 2001

The original "Cape Fear" is not a great thriller but it is expertly done and an appropriately lurid melodrama. It is amazing then that someone like Martin Scorsese would see fit to remake it. And it is doubly amazing how terrific it is - one of the most tense, superbly frightening thrillers in years. It shows Robert De Niro and most of its cast at the top of their form under the hands of a real master.

"Cape Fear" begins with a very young Juliette Lewis staring right into the camera as she tells us the story about fear and danger in a beautiful place of nature, the Cape Fear river. Lewis plays Danielle Bowden, the precocious, pot-smoking teenage daughter of the Bowdens. The Bowdens include her father, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), a righteous lawyer who is having an affair with a law clerk, and Leigh Bowden (Jessica Lange), the mother who knows her husband is up to no good. It is a typical dysfunctional family that somehow functions despite such problems. All it takes is for someone like Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a vicious, tattoed, Bible-spouting rapist to bring the family to the surface with its problems.

It turns out that Cady has some history with Sam. Sam was Cady's former lawyer who buried some evidence that would have got Cady out of jail sooner than a fourteen year term. The formerly illiterate Cady has learned how to read in jail, to weight lift but more importantly, to know the law as well as Sam has learned it (not to mention keen knowledge of Biblical passages). Since Cady is aware of Sam's indiscretions, he is ready to make Sam's life as miserable as possible. Cady savagely rapes the law clerk who knows Sam (well-played by Illeana Douglas), kills the family dog, teases Leigh and, in the most controversial and jaw-droppingly breathless sequence, seduces Danielle with a marihuana cigarette, talks of Henry Miller and kisses her. It is a scene to stop time, as many have declared, and Lewis and De Niro make it startling as well.

"Cape Fear" is a jittery experience, full of fear and anxiety in equal droves. No one ever seems to stand still for one moment, nor does the camera. Even a relatively simple scene between Nolte and the law clerk has them anxious to move on, as if standing still and talking were a nervy thing to do. The whole film is like that. When the Bowdens go to the local movie theatre to see "Problem Child," Max is in the theatre laughing as hard as anyone else and smoking up a storm. There is not a single moment where anyone behaves or moves quietly. Scorsese is determined to keep you on edge and uneasy, going so far as to have certain characters walk right into the screen. We see X-ray shots of the Bowdens making love. Fireworks erupt outside as Max looks on sitting on the ledge. Thunderous clouds, sometimes reddish in color, are in abundance throughout. Phones ring when least expected (as in most thrillers). Books mysteriously appear underneath geranium pots.

It is easy to write off Scorsese's "Cape Fear" as simply a thriller exercise, a moment of respite between the weight of his "GoodFellas" and the "Age of Innocence." But Scorsese and writer Wesley Strick are after more than making average Hollywood schlock. Most writers would make Samuel Bowden and the family happy and clean cut with no inner flaws, thus making the evil that haunts them far more savage than needs be. Only Sam has commited an immoral act - he simply did not do everything he should have to protect his client. Leigh would normally be shown as the dutiful, respectful wife with no complaints. Boy, is she full of them, and she is even attracted to Max (a character trait in the original that was only hinted at). Danielle, the daughter, also has her share of problems and tries to escape from them. She has parents who are always arguing and shouting with each other. Max seems like a nice escape from her home life but, well, she should know better than to go in a empty, ominous-looking theatre.

De Niro is nothing short of perfect as Max Cady, a psycho who is only interested in saving the Bowdens, not destroying them. He just wants them to suffer as if he was some avenging angel cleansing them of their sins. The final conclusion in a raging river inside a houseboat where Max wants Sam to tell the truth is harrowing, powerful stuff. It is not a Freddy Krueger finale where the killer comes back from the dead (he is burned but manages to come back into the houseboat for one last confrontation). In these scenes, De Niro shows the pain he suffered because of Sam's indiscretions and it is as nerve-jangling and as intensifying as the actor has ever been since.

Nick Nolte restrains himself nicely as Sam Bowden, the lawyer with hardly any ethics or values left. His transition from reserved and pathetic to angry and resilient is brilliant to watch (look carefully at the scene where Sam witnesses the attack on Max by hired men). Jessica Lange is exceedingly good in every scene she is in and holds her own with Nolte and De Niro. And the star-making performance of Juliette Lewis is a stunner - a girl with sexual inhibitions about ready to burst at any moment. Her final stare at the end of the film is unforgettable. Kudos also go to Joe Don Baker as a private detective who has a peculiar drink to stay awake and the three principal actors from the original, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum, make swift, brief impressions.

"Cape Fear" is not for average audiences for many reasons, notably because there is no one to root for. And the bitter, nasty climax will leave you stunned into shock and out of breath. But its morally complex issues and full-bodied characters and incredible, unbridled tension make for one of the best thrillers of the 1990's and a remake that actually outdoes the original. Scorsese said he wanted to make a film about fear and anxiety and he has succeeded admirably.

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