Friday 20 December 2013

Movie Review: Cape Fear (1991)

A tense journey into unyielding terror, Cape Fear is an exceptional drama. Martin Scorsese creates an epic nightmare as one family's life is ravaged by an ex-convict hell bent on revenge.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison after serving 14 years for viciously raping a teenager. He immediately goes to the quaint town of New Essex, North Carolina, where lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) lives with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and 15 year old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Sam was the Georgia public defendant tasked with representing Max. Convinced that Max was guilty, Sam buried an investigative report that could have helped to acquit his client. In prison, Max not only worked on achieving supreme physical fitness, but also educated himself and uncovered Sam's unethical behaviour. He now wants revenge for the lost years of his life.

Sam's marriage to Leigh is already in trouble, with Sam's eyes wandering towards court clerk Lori (Illeana Douglas), while Danielle is in rebellion against her parents. But Sam's troubles multiply when Max starts to stalk the family's every move. Leigh's dog dies suspiciously, and Lori is brutally raped by Max, but refuses to testify for fear that her relationship with Sam may be revealed. Max becomes more brazen, arranging to meet Danielle alone, showering her with flattery and attempting to turn her against her parents. Sam receives no help from the police, and in desperation turns to private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) for help. Kersek arranges for Max to receive a back alley beating, but the attempt at thuggery fails. Sam finds his house under siege, his family threatened, and no way to turn back a man obsessed with his own twisted brand of justice.

A remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, Scorsese infuses his version with psycho-sexual and religious overtones that amplify the creepiness factor. Cady is not only evil and physically indestructible, he is a sexual predator on the hunt for new young victims, with Danielle his ideal target. He is also a philosopher fuelled by deviant religious fervour gained from devouring the Bible while in prison. Scorsese turns Cady into a heinous force of nature rather than a man, De Niro responding with wiry performance filled with barely restrained intensity.

Cape Fear builds tension surely and steadily. The film offers no relief, no humour, and no respite. With every scene, Scorsese nudges Sam Bowden's life closer towards the precipice, Cady's presence nibbling away at any security and comfort not already damaged by the simmering resentment between Sam and Leigh. By the time Sam packs up his family and starts the long drive to Cape Fear, fear is ironically the only thing holding Sam, Leigh and Danielle together.

The film is filled with memorable moments, including the dark alley fight with Cady taking on three goons hired by Kersek to solve Sam's problem, the game of stealth that ends with sheer bloody horror as Kersek attempts to lay a trap for Cady at Sam's house, and Cady's unique method of transportation to Cape Fear.

But the film's most hypnotizing scene is the encounter between Max and Danielle at the empty theatre, a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf in man's clothing. It's a long scene, filmed by Scorsese with acute patience, as Max psychologically wraps Danielle around his figurative finger by preying on her burgeoning independence, and then literally uses his finger to dominate her by triggering her latent sexuality. It's a terrifying, asymmetrical confrontation, a demonstration of how much damage Max can deliver without even resorting to violence. Both De Niro and Lewis received deserved Academy Award acting nominations.

While Nick Nolte's Sam is more of a passive victim, Jessica Lange gives Leigh a full role in the mounting horror. Lange makes the most of the unresolved issues of betrayal harboured by Leigh towards Sam, and shines when it's time to defend her daughter at all costs, the only time that any character comes close to penetrating Cady's formidable psychological defences. Elsewhere in the cast, small roles for Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam provide a strong linkage back to the 1962 original.

With the blunders of the past re-emerging to haunt an imperfect present, Cape Fear is a classy experience in relentless horror.

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