Cape Fear (1991)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

As if The Simpsons couldn’t make it any clearer, Robert De Niro’s Max Cady is a cartoon villain. With his outrageous accent, his muscular physique, his frightening intelligence and his ability to get the shit kicked out of him and come back harder and tougher, he’s completely removed from reality. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t fun. I mean, in the aforementioned scene where he gets the crap kicked out of him – with lead pipes and bicycle chains, no less – he gets to quote Silesius while adjusting his cute little hick hat. Awesome.

Then there’s the scene where he holds a smoking flare in his hand. “Granddaddy used to handle snakes in church, Granny drank strychnine. I guess you could say I had a leg up, genetically speaking.” This sort of person only exists in nightmares and movies. He’s nothing like the Max Cady that Robert Mitchum played, a character who was more believable and therefore scarier.

However, De Niro’s Cady does have his moments. The scene where he picks up a drunk woman at a bar and then proceeds to bite a chunk out of cheek is truly shocking. But although that moment still makes me wince, I actually find the way he punches the woman more disturbing. The brutality of it is quite overwhelming.

But the film’s best scene is actually the one where Cady talks to Danielle Bowden (daughter of Sam Bowden, Cady’s lawyer who screwed him over). He pretends to be her drama teacher and the two have a little chat. What makes the scene so gripping is the fact that we’ve already seen the brutality that Cady is capable of (the biting and the punching). Therefore, when you first watch it, you’re on the edge of your seat. And then there’s the whole queasy sexual quality it has. Cady flirts with Danielle (Juliette Lewis’ reaction when De Niro asks to put his arm around her is brilliant – the shyness and the excitement is completely genuine) and has her suck on his thumb. And then when they kiss you feel like Cady has violated the family in the sickest way possible. He’s going to seduce the women of the family before tearing them apart.

The seduction of Sam’s wife Leigh (excellently played by Jessica Lange) is less obvious, but it is there. Right at the beginning, there’s a scene where the married couple make love and afterwards we see Leigh applying her make-up. It’s like she’s not quite fulfilled, that she’s waiting for a real man to turn up. And later on, when Leigh first meets Cady face to face, she seems disappointed by him. It’s like she’s been fantasising about him in private and the reality has failed to live up to expectations.

But although of all of this stuff is great, and ultimately makes it a more rewarding experience than the original film, you do have to take a couple of silly moments. For instance, there’s the bit where we see Cady tied to the bottom of the Bowdens’ 4 x 4. By this point he’s too much like a hick Terminator. And then there’s the bit where Cady disguises himself as the Mexican housekeeper so that he can kill Sam’s private detective. It just seems out of place in a film that, most of the time, tries to stay on the right side of reality. However, this killing is made worthwhile by the moment when the Bowden family slip on the blood surrounding the body. It’s an absurd moment of clumsiness that would be left out by 99% of directors but which makes the events seem more believable somehow.

But I do love the moral ambiguity that’s present in the film. Yes Cady is a monster, but he also seems to be a monster of Sam’s making. He suppressed evidence that might have got Cady acquitted. Therefore, as reprehensible a person as Cady is, you feel that he has a right to be angry with Sam. No matter how disgusting a person is, they’re entitled to a fair defence. It’s not up to a lawyer to make moral judgements (I didn’t even know they had morals). So, to some extent, Sam has inflicted this misery upon himself.

And it’s telling that, in the end, Sam doesn’t even get the satisfaction of killing Cady. Just as he’s about to slam a rock into his face, Cady drifts off into the river and drowns. But in a way this also saves Sam. Killing Cady wouldn’t cleanse him or purify his soul. It would be another nail in the coffin.

But Cady’s death is superbly filmed by Scorsese. Cady speaks in tongues and then begins singing as he disappears into the river. Even though he’s dying, Cady behaves like he’s victorious. Throughout the film his belief that he’s on the side of the righteous is unwavering. And the way that he disappears into the water is actually quite creepy – he’s like an animal vanishing into the wilderness; his death is so inhuman that you fear he’ll return at any moment.

Another moment I like: the way that Cady walks straight into the camera when he’s released from prison. He’s like a missile locked on his prey. And then there’s the scene where Cady sits on the Bowdens’ wall as hundreds of fireworks explode in the background. Scorsese’s visual sense adds immeasurably to the film. Really, I’m not sure how anyone can claim the original is better.

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