But in the 1991 update, the hero is morally unsteady, and the bad guy, while still reprehensible, has a sound reason to be so vengeful. The 1962 version was coffee-stained pulp, a wickedly entertaining revenge thriller. In contrast, the 1991 is a complicated morality tale in which we have to consider just how shallow a straightforward thriller plot can become when the characters suddenly become three-dimensional.
Yet Cape Fear’s uneasy righteousness makes for an uneasy film. Scorsese, adapting a screenplay written by Wesley Strick, directs the film as if he were making conventional studio fare, which might work if the film were a faithful remake of the 1962 original.
But because the picture wears an ethical crown of thorns, we figure the unstably simmering texture of, say, 1976’s Taxi Driver, would fit the story like a cushy leather glove. In the latter movie, we could accept the detrimental flaws of its protagonist and supposed antagonists because the movie felt so morally groggy to begin with.
Cape Fear, though, looks and feels like a John Grisham thriller but is fundamentally as upright as a particularly brutal Elmore Leonard novel. Recurring is our confusion as to what kind of film Scorsese intends to make: is he going for a genre piece, or is he striving for something deeper?
Underneath the misting of tonal confusion lies a hefty number of effective performances and sequences, and when Cape Fear is good, it’s reasonably great. It watches in horror as a recently released rapist, the narcissistic Max Cady (Robert De Niro), goes after the lawyer who knowingly sabotaged his defense some 14 years ago (Nick Nolte).
This plot’s trembly and prone to sensationalism, but the performances sweeten the fat ham that is the storyline. De Niro sometimes flirts with the grand annoyances of Marlon Brando performatively jerking off, but he ultimately provides us with an unshakable portrayal. He’s a grinning sadist who might as well admire himself in the mirror while doing bad.
Scorsese admires him too, but maybe too much — he allows De Niro to fly off the rails so frequently that we remember just how much we preferred Mitchum’s performance three decades prior. It was so unnervingly subtle, so creepily calm. But De Niro inserts himself into our bloodstream well enough.
Nolte does too, especially because the actor seems so out of place as a freshly shaven family man and therefore fits the billing as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But it’s the women of Cape Fear who’re paramount: Jessica Lange, as Nolte’s long-suffering wife, is a tornado of frustration, chain-smoking and combative, and Juliette Lewis, as the teenage daughter preyed upon by Cady, is pitch-perfect as a girl-not-yet-a-woman who’s at once sexually intrigued and mortified by the man trying to ruin her father. (The film’s best scene finds De Niro and Lewis interlocked in a seemingly inescapable, terrifyingly tense exchange for nearly 10 minutes.)
All these characters are so miserable, though, we reason the film’d possibly even be better off as a family drama without all the revenge hokum, as Strick digs into the uncomfortable familial dynamics with a fair amount of ferocity. But he doesn’t sink his teeth into the possibilities as much as we’d like, and once the overblown finale materializes, we’re more or less confounded. How does a movie so intent on building believable familial relations and so bent on drawing a plausible villain end on a such a dizzyingly operatic note?
Sometimes it stirs us, but most of the time does Cape Fear seem confused. Scorsese seems out of his element. He wants to make a generally orthodox thriller, yet gets so lost in the maze of moral complications that he prevents us from feeling the steady stream of pulse-pounds he's so desperate to rise out of us. But when Cape Fear thrills, the effects reverberate. B
Robert De Niro
Joe Don Baker
2 Hrs., 7 Mins.
Cape Fear October 23, 2017
ne of the things I like best about Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) is the fact that even its designated good guys are inherently rotten. In the film on which it’s based, the Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum-starring 1962 feature of the same name, the storyline, while scary and satisfactorily thrilling, was one-dimensional. Centrally, it was about a sadist’s desire to destroy the life of a noble man he believed to have wronged him. And never for a moment did we waver in our liking of Peck’s protagonist or our hatred of Mitchum’s antagonist. It was a strait-laced potboiler in which all we wanted was for good to conquer evil in a melodramatic, lip-smacking way.