1991, R, 128 min. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 22, 1991
Riveting. Suspenseful. Thoughtful. Well-planned. Well-acted. If this is Scorsese's bid for the commercial big time, then let the cash registers ring. Menacing. Psychologically thin. Routinely generic. Excessive. Misanthropic. These things are also true of this Cape Fear remake. I'm sorry. My words are all coming in fragments. This movie is so overwhelming that distanced critical perspective has not yet fully taken hold...which is exactly what Cape Fear wants. This movie aims for your gut. And Scorsese is a precision marksman. Here's one or two things I do know about Cape Fear. This is a very smart remake of what was already a remarkably disturbing movie in 1962. It adds putrefactive psychological dimensions to 1962's perfect little family unit set upon by a mad stalker (De Niro's Max Cady) determined to mete out his own brand of justice to the attorney (Nolte) whose lax defense was responsible for the harsh prison term Cady served. Instead of 1962's righteous and unblemished family, the new version depicts them as already crumbling from within before Cady ever appears to shake up their world. Infidelities plague the marriage and the 15-year-old daughter's emergent sexuality and rebellious streak troubles her parents. Cady cunningly grabs hold of those fissures and rips them wide open. Aspects that were only nuances in the original are more disturbingly overt in the current go-around. Also using three actors (Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam) from the original in cameo roles in the remake is a nice touch. Equally successful is Elmer Bernstein's adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's dynamic 1962 musical score. The acting performances in this remake are also extraordinary with De Niro brilliantly essaying another one of his lunatic fringe characters (even if at times you suspect that his goal is to out Travis Bickel, Travis Bickel). Nolte is in top form and as the daughter, Lewis is a perfect blend of precocity and innocence. Lange's character, however, has potential depths that are never plumbed -- she's more of a connective character than a true protagonist. Whether this is due to Scorsese's “woman problem” or Lange's acting skills, I'm not fully sure. It's also a true fact that Scorsese is one of the cinema's most gifted practitioners, one who both builds on the past and sets the agenda for the future. Cape Fear abounds with stylistic flourishes and razor-sharp edits. Still, one gets the feeling the Scorsese may have kept some of his bravura strokes in check with the goal of achieving more mainstream box office success. And along those lines, Cape Fear may not be as menacing and evil as it sets out to be. For when all is said and done, the family unit survives and perseveres. In fact, it has probably been made stronger by this test and thus, the status quo is upheld. They were right to worry about their daughter's rambunctious sexuality. They were right to presume that infidelity could tear them asunder. As with all Scorsese movies there's also a moral battlefield that must be crossed before closure is reached. Cape Fear raises complex questions regarding justice, though Cady's depiction of such utter evil is an unequal match for his former attorney's more nebulous moral position. With his torso tattooed with Biblical vengeance references, Cady is almost a cartoon of evil incarnate. (His multiple deaths and returns to life during the film's final half-hour are straight out of generic suspense formulas.) In the end, traditional morality is upheld, the bile has been eviscerated and humanity has been dragged down just one notch further in its attempt to outwit the Devil.The blood is on our hands, though we've spent the last two hours on the edge of our seats.