Cape Fear (1991)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


I don’t think I enjoyed Cape Fear, but I was eager to watch it unfold, if that makes sense.  The story is about a former inmate, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), who harasses the lawyer who represented him, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) 14 years earlier.  Cady is worked up because he learned, while in prison, that Sam didn’t adequately defend him, so now he’s out for revenge, proving that there was some basis for Sam’s original and continuing fear of the man.

So we know Cady is up to something, but he continually holds back.  He never gives Sam a concrete piece of evidence to justify bringing in the cops or getting a restraining order.  Sam gets so aggravated and scared that he begins to spiral out of control, making him look like the bad guy.

Now, there are really two types of films in Cape Fear.  The first is drenched in “creepy” and the second is drenched in “terror.”  Now, those elements are both subjective as I didn’t find the creepy all that creepy (really more silly and disturbing), and the terror felt similarly far-fetched.  It’s a common ‘problem’ (if you consider it a problem) in horror/thriller films.  In The Shining, for example, we spend most of the film feeling creeped out because we don’t know what’s really going on in The Overlook Hotel or within Jack Torrance’s mind.  Similarly, in a more recent film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, we wonder if Howard is truly bad and if so, what his intentions are.

Then we get to the end of act 2 where Jack becomes an axe-wielding murderous lunatic, and Howard becomes a burned, monster-like, knife-wielding threat.  In each case, the fear and eerie sensation throughout the film is suddenly funneled into this one character.  It might be more horrifying because the film and the characters are likely to jump out at you, grabbing you by the throat, but you know where to look and what to think.  In this moment in a film there is sudden clarity and focus, but there is a certain amount of fear that goes out the window because you know where to look, meaning you’re less likely to wonder or to be surprised.  It’s the same reason monster movies have begun to withhold the monster until further into the film.  In the most recent Godzilla, we only ever see glimpses of the gigantic monster, making us wonder how much bigger and dangerous she (?) is.  And then you have the famous example from Jaws in which we hardly ever see the threatening shark.  Instead we see from the shark’s perspective as it swims through the water, and suddenly every underwater shot, even with no shark, feels dangerous.

So most of Cape Fear deals in the creepy.  We know Cady probably wants to hurt Sam and his family, but Cady is constantly holding back.  He never punches when you expect him to punch. Instead he plays mind games, breaking down Sam from the inside.

I had trouble believing this part of the film because it’s so pulpy.  The music is the same one originally scored by Bernard Hermann (an Alfred Hitchcock collaborator who scored Psycho) so the music is constant.  There is never a moment intended to let you feel at ease, but this ever-present score desensitizes the viewer to the creepiness.  And, I get that “creepy” is something more atmospheric than terror, so it’s likely that you should never be settled, except that this score (and other pulpy components of the film) lead you to expect what’s to come.  It’s never unsettling because you settle into this experience.  The music keeps the momentum going more than it is jarring, forcing you to constantly be aware of the movie environment.

Another thing, I realized, is that Robert De Niro is an incredibly famous actor.  It’s hard to see him and not have a preconceived idea of what to expect of his character.  This movie came out in 1991, after films like Taxi DriverThe Deer HunterRaging Bull and Goodfellas.  Generally speaking, De Niro plays characters who have more heart (if any) than brains.  At his characters’ best, they are well-meaning but unprepared for what’s to follow (The Deer Hunter).  At their worst, they have no brains, only ego and muscle (Raging Bull).  In between you have a film like Taxi Driver in which, as far as I can remember, Travis Bickle is intelligent, but he’s of course more than a little insane.

This is all to say that I didn’t buy Max Cady as this hyper-intelligent ex-convict who was constantly out-thinking and out-tricking a lawyer like Sam Bowden.  Well, that and Cady’s southern accent.  It made him so outlandish and hard to take seriously, but then the entire film felt purposefully satiric.  Max Cady is a cartoon villain.  He’s so outwardly evil, and it provides a good contrast to Sam Bowden who is hyper-boring.

So what does this say about your or my viewing experience?

I knew where the story was going (mostly because of The Simpsons episode that parodied this movie), so I felt like I was just waiting… and waiting…

And Max Cady’s leap from creepy to Norman Bates is both horrifying and hilarious.  He kills the nanny and disguises himself in her clothing and hair (or a wig), and when he turns around to face the camera it’s impossible not to see the images of Norman Bates’ dead mother in Psycho.

So, were you to buy in, I think this moment works.  It truly is terrifying, but it also doesn’t make much sense.  What was Max Cady’s plan?  Was it to murder Sam’s family?  That’s what it looked like, but then the way he constantly resists doing so feels pointless.  And then you have the fact that Cady constantly outsmarts Sam, but then Sam is somehow able to trick him by convincing him he wasn’t home when he was.

This scene only kills off two side characters, making the threat more real (because we hadn’t yet seen Cady kill anyone), and it pushes Sam to isolate his family at Cape Fear for the final act of the film.  The best part of the movie, at least of Cady’s character, is when we see him holding onto the bottom of the Bowden’s car, having hitched along like the mother alien from Aliens.  It’s even more terrifying, somehow, than the murder scene, and it makes Cady even more wacky and insane.  It’s great.

So the more I think about it, I think this movie could just be a lot shorter and get to the truly insane moments much more quickly.  I get that we want to push Sam to his limit, but all the threatening conversations and creepy southern accents start to get kind of boring.  I think it’s way too clear that Cady wants to hurt Sam.  He says this early on, so then we’re just waiting for the terror to take place.

Now, I would’ve liked to see Cady has an even more mysterious, silent character.  That way we hear less of him talking (I really didn’t like the voice) and know less of his motives.  What if he didn’t want to hurt Sam, but it was Sam’s paranoia (and guilt for the way he improperly defended his one-time client) that drove him to his breaking point?  Maybe just seeing and recognizing Cady would affect him, especially if Cady has been dramatically changed by prison.

But this is really supposed to be a fun, violent, terrifying movie.  It’s more about fun and the experience.  So you need the bad guy to be bad and the good guy to be good.  We have to know exactly who to root for, and that’s what we get.

But there is time and weight given to Cady’s reasoning for his carefully planned madness and a brief focus on Sam’s guilt.  Because this is Scorsese, he goes a little further than he needs to, and it’s a good thing.  This movie felt like it was in between two extremes.  One is the arthouse film about a character’s fear and guilt and the other is a straight thriller about good versus evil.  This feels like a movie that’s meant to be the latter (particularly as Cady becomes a real monster), but Scorsese introduces elements of the former.

None of the characters are all that likable in this movie.  Sam and his wife and daughter do not get along that well, and from what I read in a very limited round of research, this wasn’t in the script originally.  It was Scorsese’s idea to not make them the happy family with money and the perfect life.  All is not well in paradise, even before paradise is invaded by a murderer.

I thought that was a great touch.  At the end of the film you get the shot of the happy family reunited, and it means more because we’ve seen them struggle with their own personal conflicts.  It feels like they’ve actually come together in a way they hadn’t even at the start of the film.

I guess I have no idea if I liked this film.  I liked elements of it and certain choices, but suppose I don’t really like this kind of film.  It’s over the top, and it knows this.  I might’ve liked to see this film in black and white like an old Hitchcock film because it feels so directly influenced by the famous director.

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