Three things I’m thankful for today:

  1. Clearing brush with the wood-chipper on my father-in-law’s farm. We spent 7 hours clearing enormous piles of cedar limbs and other wood Jim had trimmed from trees lining his various fields. My favorite part: Asher, my 9-year-old, hanging out with us for the duration, going at it with a hatchet on every limb he could get to. His energy and enthusiasm never flagged for a second. His joy was infectious.
  2. The motivation to write this review, despite my anxiety about it.
  3. The motivation to initiate conversation with people I barely know at church.

I have a couple hundred movies on my Netflix streaming queue, and I can never make up my mind about what to watch next, so I check my list at the website frequently and prioritize by what is due to go off next. Cape Fear was one of them. I was glad to be provoked to watch it, as I’d been meaning to for years and I’m a fan of Martin Scorsese films.

Cape Fear is about an attorney named Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte,) who lives with his wife and teenage daughter in Florida. His marriage is loving but rocky, as Bowden has had a number of infidelities over the years and seems on the verge of entering a new affair. He’s a flawed man, but a family man who seems like he’s trying his best in spite of his demons. One of those demons, however, has come for a reckoning–Max Cady (Robert De Niro) a recently released ex-con whom Bowden defended (poorly) 14 years ago. Cady is seeking revenge against the lawyer who denied him the proper defense he was entitled to, and he stalks and terrorizes the Bowdens relentlessly. Cady especially targets their young and impressionable 15-year-old daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), who is very close in age and, perhaps, likeness to the girl Cady was convicted of assaulting and raping 14 years previous.

Cape Fear is a remake of a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, as Bowden and Cady, respectfully. In that film, Bowden was an upstanding, comparatively flawless and good man, but Scorsese had a different vision for his remake. He wanted a Bowden with warts, and at times, it seems that Bowden may deserve Cady, or at least some kind of reckoning for his sins. Nolte’s Bowden is not a bad man, but a case can certainly be made that he needs to be punished. De Niro’s Cady is not only bad, but pure evil, the devil masquerading as an angel of judgment. He has a supernatural omnipresence, showing up everywhere the Bowdens are, sometimes seemingly before they have arrived. He stalks their property, watches them from across the street at a parade, even tags along on a family getaway in a manner that is well beyond reasonable. He is the stuff of nightmares.

Cape Fear is entertaining suspense, but not the masterpiece it could have been in Scorsese’s hands. Scorsese directs this almost as if it were purely his re-imagining of the 1962 film rather than his own vision; in other words, he’s committed to the styles of noir of that time period, which clashes with his own directorial style. I would rather he have updated it completely. For instance, the film is over-scored (Elmer Bernstein reproduces the original Bernard Herrmann score), and scenes that would be much more effective without a score are wall-to-wall music, as you would see in a good mid-20th-century noir but not in a good Scorsese flick. Quick zooms and selective lighting also draw attention to themselves and away from the characters, so that the performances at times are cartoonish or archetypal rather than human. I was fascinated by Sam Bowden and Max Cady, but because the style of the thing was so often emphasized over substance, I couldn’t appreciate the pathos and nuances at work here. It kept me on the surface.

The movie does score big in spots, however, when it seems Scorsese forgot he was trying to reproduce a 1962 suspense film and directed it his way, and both of them involved Julette Lewis (who, along with De Niro, was nominated for an Oscar). The first is a now-classic, deeply disturbing scene between Danielle and Cady, who poses as her summer school drama teacher to attempt to seduce her. The scene was improvised, and the two actors completely disappear into their characters and the shared moment. De Niro is menacing while at the same time oddly soothing, speaking to Danielle on a level she can understand. She is a vulnerable teenager–her parents fight a lot and seem to ignore her. She feels alienated, and Cady can speak to that with philosophy and maxims that make sense to Danielle. Lewis portrays a little girl’s caution with a stranger along with an adolescent’s fascination and attraction to a wise father figure who speaks so much sense that he is attractive to her in spite of the danger he poses. She blushes, she giggles, and she is on the verge of frightened tears, all at once. The way she reacts when Cady puts his thumb in her mouth is both impossible to watch and impossible to turn away from. There is no score here, and the camera behaves itself. The second scene somewhat reprises this one, when Danielle and Leigh (Jessican Lange), her mother, are trapped by Cady on their houseboat. Here, Danielle tries to seduce Max, in the hopes of keeping him placated and distracted. She does so well at first that we think perhaps she really is glad to see him, that she really does feel a greater affinity for him than she does her parents. He almost believes it, too, but then her face breaks, then her voice as she tries to keep the charade going, and we realize that Max knew even before we did that she was lying.

These are the most frightening scenes of the movie and score much bigger than any of the other shocks. I think Scorsese knew this, but he was committed to directing this as a 1950s-60s noir and couldn’t back away from it. It’s really too bad. He had some incredible material and talent to work with. I just wish he had made the movie 100% his way.

Score: 3/5

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