Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a man with truth and justice scales tattooed on his back and a fat cigar permanently perched in his hand, has just been released from Georgia State prison after serving fourteen years for rape. Cady, who spent his time toughening his skin and learning to read, is ready to exact revenge with macabre Bible quotes and an expert knowledge of the law. His prey is the lawyer that defended him, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), along with Bowden’s neurotic wife (Jessica Lange) and rebellious daughter (Juliette Lewis). Cady pursues his goal with frightening tenacity, chasing the family all the way to their vacation spot, Cape Fear.
Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 film is an eerie crime thriller that plays with fear. You constantly want to know what will happen next. While people who enjoy gritty crime films will love it, intellectuals might also enjoy Cady’s clever schemes and the film’s discussion of the law.
Sam Bowden is not an innocent hero. He hid evidence that might have lightened Cady’s sentence, unable to fully defend Cady after seeing what he did to a young girl. Cady, who is clearly out of his mind despite his ingenious plans, adds to the moral question by using select scriptures to elevate himself to the status of God and justify his revenge. The film, like Cady’s tattoos, juggles truth and justice; these questions and ideas become the film’s focus and create its thrilling plot.
It’s not easy to just take the lawyer’s side, since he’s more of a burnt cookie than a cookie-cutter hero. He’s not the most faithful husband, and he often takes the law into his own hands, slyly hiring goons to try and beat Cady up. Leigh, his wife, isn’t the dutiful housewife either, with annoyingly neurotic tendencies. Meanwhile, their daughter delights in the fact that a mysterious criminal is sexually targeting her. The less than ideal family is not pleasant to watch, but their development is interesting. In the final few scenes, which involve intense physical and emotional man vs. man conflict, each family member must face their flaws.
With icky characters that I didn’t really want to root for, it was the story that drove the film forward. With such an interesting situation set up by the film’s moral question, I was really pushed to keep watching. Did Cady know that Bowden tampered with evidence? How did Cady get into Bowden’s house? Unfortunately, not everything was answered. While this can be a virtue for many films, I felt that this one should have revealed all the secrets. I was still confused about several points at the end.
While I was unsettled about parts of the film, it mostly succeeded. De Niro was a memorable villain and quick to make an impression. I’m not a huge fan of Juliette Lewis, but the character was well suited to her slow, awkward movements. Jessica Lange was also well cast, striking the balance between mentally ill and loving. I enjoyed the score as well, which was full of spine chilling chords that foreshadowed the final stormy scene. The cinematography was interesting; while I enjoyed a shot of Cady sitting king-like on a wall with fireworks cracking behind him, I was not a fan of the random filters and coloring.
Along with the presence of De Niro, other Scorsese trademarks included crime and religion themes, corrupt authorities (Bowden, with his position as a lawyer), and conflict overcoming character. It was not the most satisfying dip into Scorsese’s work, but still proved to be a good thrill.