Cape Fear (1991)

Cape-Fear-1Your first thought after seeing Cape Fear, I promise you, will be ‘What the hell was that?’ It’s not that you won’t know what the film was about; it’s that you won’t know what hit you. Director Martin Scorsese, making his first Hollywood thriller, pounds you again and again. You see the blows coming, but they’re hard and fast, and there’s almost no let-up. Cape Fear brutalizes the audience, shoves our faces in the unspeakable. It’s a dazzling achievement, but much as I’d like to, I can’t bring myself to applaud it.

The plot, a little different from the original 1962 Cape Fear, is still a standard payback’s-a-bitch tale: Psycho gets out of prison, seeks revenge on the lawyer who could’ve saved him from jail but didn’t. Sounds kind of dull, something from Matlock. But Scorsese, bless his twisted little heart, can’t just leave this story as is. He turns it into … into a Catholic monster movie! The psycho becomes the Avenging Angel, complete with biblical quotes tattooed on his body, and the lawyer must prove his purity by defending himself and his family. The reasoning behind this is questionable — it’s the Book of Job by way of Straw Dogs — but Scorsese persuades us that this battle of faith matters. Themes of guilt and responsibility were Hitchcock’s bread and butter, and they’ve always fit into Scorsese’s anguished Catholic worldview.

Cape Fear takes some getting used to. Each character is introduced with a sweeping camera pan into his or her face, and the psycho, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), gets full Dolby-stereo treatment, with ear-splitting blasts of music even when he’s just sitting there. This is easily the most hyperactive movie I’ve seen since Darkman. Some in the audience giggled at Scorsese’s dingbat excesses; others, like me and the people I saw it with, couldn’t get enough. The loony intensity of Cape Fear sets it apart and makes it fun for a while (before the intensity becomes unpleasant). What comes through loud and clear in the film’s best moments is Scorsese’s love for the operatic, shameless devices of the pulp thrillers he devoured as a kid.

Yet I wonder what Scorsese thinks he’s doing in the scene where Max rapes and beats a woman in his apartment; the camera jams us right up against the violence as Max takes a big gory bite out of the woman’s face and punches her, viciously, again and again and again. We want to say, Okay, we get the picture — Max isn’t very nice. Later, when Max has a victim down and helpless, Scorsese isn’t happy with just one kick; he has Max do it four times. Is this kind of approach really necessary for a good thriller? In the original Cape Fear, a shirtless Robert Mitchum conveyed volumes of sexual menace just by breaking an egg and smearing the yolk on Polly Bergen’s bare shoulders.

Scorsese’s assumption here seems to be that repetitive brutality — whack, whack, over and over — plays better than routine Hollywood brutality. Scorsese may need such percussive outbursts of savagery in order to exorcise whatever it is that bothers him, but I doubt he realizes the effect it has on moviegoers. If carefully rationed, as in GoodFellas or Raging Bull, it’s more palatable, and at least in those cases the violence is in service of something more serious than a Saturday-night boo-movie. In Cape Fear, the savagery is gleeful, almost self-consciously explosive. I’ve seen what an enjoyable filmmaker Scorsese can be when he doesn’t rely on head-crushing for his effects (The Last Waltz, “Life Lessons” in New York Stories); that’s why I’m getting a little sick of being pummeled by him in movies like this one.

Scorsese the artist-brutalizer returns in the climactic scene on the lawyer’s houseboat, where all the fear and madness come to a head.  Throughout, the movie has generally been crazed but involving; we’ve felt the frustration of the lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), we’ve felt protective of his ad-designer wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danny (Juliette Lewis), and we dread the inevitable showdown between Max and Sam while knowing that we need it as a release for the tension Scorsese has built. But in the last ten minutes or so, when Sam seems defeated and Leigh tries desperately to seduce Max so he won’t rape Danny, Scorsese goes behind making a thriller into something else. What, exactly, I don’t know. Helpless women in peril are, of course, a staple of thrillers, but not to this degree; and Scorsese lingers so long on the suspense — will Max rape Danny or won’t he? — that I nearly walked out. It’s suspense, all right, but of the most repellent kind. Things only get uglier from there, and there’s no real release; Scorsese lays on about four climaxes, all horrifying, before the final one, and we’re left shaken, frightened, and, yes, angry at the director for having worked us over so severely. “You want a mainstream thriller?” Scorsese seems to bellow. “I’ll give you a fucking mainstream thriller,” and he goes so far the film could almost be a manic parody of what Scorsese thinks the mass audience wants. As a sadist, Max has nothing on Scorsese. Yet many critics have responded heartily to Cape Fear, and to what they see as Scorsese’s return to his old vitality. Do they think he’s not doing what he’s doing just because he’s Martin Scorsese? At the end, Sam has been punished for his “sins”; Scorsese seems to be punishing us, too.

Which may seem besides the point. A thriller is supposed to thrill, isn’t it? Yes, and Cape Fear does just that. On just about every level, the movie is a stunner. The performances, across the board, are top-drawer; De Niro, boiled down to muscular essentials and caressing his hostile dialogue in a revoltingly insinuating drawl, more than makes up for the wishy-washy roles he’s been stuck in lately. Technically, the film is flawless — clearly a professional piece of work by a great director at the top of his form. It’s a ruthless blood-pressure-raising machine. I could go so far as to say Cape Fear is superior to any other movie around; what I can’t say is that I enjoyed it much. It’s a spectacularly effective piece of slaughterhouse filmmaking, but its aggressiveness goes well beyond the basic requirements of a thriller — as if Scorsese were working off heavy contempt for the studios, for the audience that won’t support his serious work but comes out in droves for sell-out stuff like this, and even for himself. Cape Fear is ugly in ways that have nothing to do with its subject and everything to do with the mood of the man who made it.

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