Martin Scorsese lunges for the throat in brutally intense 'Cape Fear'

November 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Meet feral man. He's a tattoo museum and his eyes glint with pathological cunning. He has done graduate work at the University of the Joint, where he studied rape from a variety of perspectives.

At that august institution he also had his last vestiges of humanity removed while acquiring a useful knowledge of the law, physical fitness and close-quarters combat. He's very tough. He's very dangerous. But worst of all, he's very smart.

And who is the natural prey of feral man? Why, it's rational man, in his crisp seersuckers and his starchy shirts. He's the guilt-consumed logician whose fundamental philosophical position is that the universe must make sense and that all problems can therefore be solved with patience, economic justice and good communications skills.

Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear," like its 1962 predecessor, is an ,, epic account of the confrontation between a feral and a rational man. Like its predecessor, its subtext is ultimately dispiriting -- to beat one you have to become one. Its moral lesson is hardly uplifting: Go for the brainshot first.

Scorsese is something of a specialist in feral men -- "Raging Bull" was a preliminary study and, in a comic vein, so was "King of Comedy" -- and his fellow-traveler into these troubled realms has been and is again Robert De Niro, who plays the movie's driving demon, Max Cady.

Cady is something to behold, with hard muscles and a Sistine Chapel of blue ink under his skin. That crooning accent is Elmer Gantry's, but it's not salvation he's selling, only damnation. A nut-case rapist to begin with, he's been alchemized by 14 years hard time into true golden demonhood. The object of his obscure grudge is a poor though prosperous South Carolina lawyer named Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte, slimmed down to appear frail).

Bowden's preppy duds and rimless glasses mark him as a.) concerned b.) intellectual c.) liberal and d.) free lunch. Cady hates him because those 14 years ago Bowden, then a public defender, failed to mount an aggressive enough defense. That Cady was guilty of the brutal crime is not a factor in his decision to deconstruct Bowden and his family.

What follows is a cat and mouse game escalating primordially toward the most fearsome violence. It watches with fascination as poor Bowden hastily erects rational obstacles against Cady, and Cady blows through them with unbearable implacability. To say that the movie is intense is to understate the case: It grabs you by the throat and beats your head against the wall for two long hours.

Cady's violence, however, isn't just force: His sense of ironic mischief demands not total destruction but despiritualization. His goal is to strip Bowden of his humanity and his vanity. His gift is sensing weakness, and it's a measure of that old saw How Times Have Changed that where in the 1962 original, Bowden's family was his strength, in Scorsese's '91 version, it's his weakness. He's cheated on his wife (Jessica Lange); her rage is palpable and troubling. His daughter (Juliette Lewis) is beginning to feel her sexuality and her distance from her parents, taking the form of minor rebellion (a bust for grass). It's the American family writ small: petty infidelities, pointless rebellions, simmering anger, a general lack of civility.

Cady's like a coyote attacking a wound: He goes for the blood -- geekily he seduces the daughter (an unsettling scene); he harasses the mother -- and the family seems to disintegrate under the pressure, which in its way is more horrifying than the actual violence.

As gripping as it is, the movie is somewhat absurdly flawed. To begin with, it's fine to desaturate the virtue in Bowden down from Gregory Peck's paragon of rectitude in the original, but Nolte's Bowden is hardly an empathetic creature. He hires other men to fight for him, he is not nearly as effective in defense of his family as his family is in defense of him and, in the face of an armed and dangerous opponent, he clings to the point of ridiculousness to notions of due process.

The whole issue of credibility is problematic. Instead of putting in electronic security system or getting a guard dog, Bowden hires a plump private eye (Joe Don Baker) who runs fishing line around the lower floor windows and sits up late with a snub nose revolver. And guess what happens to him?

Then the family flees. Where would you go with a mad killer on your tail? Certainly not to a houseboat in a primeval swamp without guards or contact to the outside world, unless of course, you were in a movie and the director wanted to make a symbolic point with the sucking bog all around and play games with the river's name, which is of course the Cape Fear.

Pettily flawed as it is, "Cape Fear" is still the cheapest 300-cc injection of adrenalin you can purchase legally.

'Cape Fear'

Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange.

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

***

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