For movie buffs, even the most minor film by American director Martin Scorsese is an eagerly anticipated event. But in the wake of the enormously successful (and utterly brilliant) Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese is no longer out to please only his devoted fans. At the height of his career, he has turned his awesome talent to what he modestly calls a commercial assignment for the mass audience – a remake of the chilling classic thriller Cape Fear (1962).
Scorsese need hardly be so modest. With its superb cast, nerve-wracking tension and spellbinding visual pyrotechnics, this new Cape Fear is easily one of the best films of the early '90s. It is also among the darkest, least comforting movies ever made about the madness, evil and alienation haunting contemporary life.
The plot unfolds simply enough. Max Cady (Robert De Niro in a performance guaranteed to make your flesh creep) exits his prison cell after fourteen humiliating, dehumanising years. He's out for revenge on family man Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who helped to put Cady in jail instead of defending him. Cady's reign of terror over the entire Bowden family unfolds as a slow, excruciating torture.
Cady is ugly and violent, but he's no fool. Inside prison, Cady has niftily raised himself from a proletarian dumb animal to an evil genius rivalling Hannibal the Cannibal from Silence of the Lambs. His vengeance is fuelled by an intimate knowledge of legal procedure, quotes from Nietzsche and Henry Miller, and a fine sense of his status as a social outcast.
Scorsese is a master of cinematic paranoia. Literally, paranoia is a territorial insecurity – the fear that one's borders are being invaded and broken down. In Cape Fear, two particular territories are relentlessly, mercilessly battered – the domestic hearth and the human body.
What makes Max Cady especially frightening – not to mention horrifically superhuman – is his ability to invade the Bowden household at any moment. Nothing, and no one, can keep him out. Ironically, his wild freedom of movement drives the family to literally imprison itself within its four walls – allowing Scorsese a fiendish parody of the suburban, American happy home.
What is especially unsettling in Cape Fear is the ever-present threat of bodily violation. The film contains very little actual violence, but a stomach-turning early scene in which Cady behaves like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho is enough to have the audience in a state of total dread for the entire story.
What will most upset some viewers is Scorsese's masterly mixing of dread with desire, repulsion with fascination. Much of the film centres on the teenage member of the Bowden family, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Alienated from her bickering parents, Danielle is strangely drawn to the 'wild man' Cady. The quietly shocking scenes between them haunt the memory even more than the astonishing action finale. Cape Fear is strong stuff, but you'd be crazy to pass it up.
© Adrian Martin December 1991