Cinema Club: Cape Fear

Posted on June 12, 2013

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The 9th Circle of Hell

Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror films. In fact, I fail to see the point of them sometimes. Why would anyone want to be scared? Okay, maybe I’ll allow the adrenaline part of it, but it surely isn’t worth the tension and fear that you feel weeks even months later? Seriously, whenever I think of Castle Freak or Jeepers Creepers 2 I can still clearly see moments from those films, and I hate it. Most modern horror films, and please correct me if I’m wrong because I have pretty much avoided the genre for a long time, seem to either be obsessed with horror for horrors sake or building towards some sort of nonsensical twist. If modern horror films were more like Cape Fear, I would probably watch a lot more of them. If more villains were like Max Cady, I 100% would. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Cape Fear is a tale of revenge and responsibilities. It revolves around Sam Bowden, played by Nick Nolte, a lawyer living in a small town. He has an on the surface happy relationship with his wife and daughter (wonderfully played by Juliette Lewis). Their perfect life however is exposed as a sham with the arrival of Max Cady. Cady has just been released from prison after 14 years, and it turns out Bowden was his defence lawyer. We quickly learn that Cady has returned to make Bowden’s life a living hell, mostly because during his trial Bowden had withheld some information which could have lessened the sentence Cady received. He did this because Cady deserved to go down for his crime, that of rape, and Cady’s social status. The compromising of ethics will be the catalyst for one of the most intriguing and layered villains I have ever seen in a film.

Cady begins by making thinly veiled threats and staying within the realm of the law. Bowden quickly realises that his status as a lawyer doesn’t give him the protection he assumed was his, and he is covertly encouraged to take the law into his own hands. Through this we learn that Cady is nigh on indestructible. In his own words, during his 14 years in prison he became more than a man, something that is brought up many times during the film and gives Cady a feeling of being invincible. The lawyer personality of Bowden slowly unravels as the psychological abuse increases, coming to a head as Cady psuedo-seduces Bowden’s 16 year old daughter. He eventually plans to murder Cady, but even this backfires and results in the Bowdens fleeing their home. Of course, Cady follows them, and the whole film comes to an immaculately tense climax on a boat.

Max Cady is an important film villain. There is a tendency in television today for all characters to be unlikable, for it to be difficult to ‘root for’ any character in particular. Whilst I understand the reasoning, I find it difficult to watch. This film follows the same theory, but absolutely excels because of it. Sure, its easier in a film as the number of central characters is smaller, but it is the symbolism and reflections here within that make this such a joy. Sam Bowden and Max Cady are essentially 2 sides of the same coin, and as the film progresses this becomes clearer. Cady is, in many ways, everybody. We all have dark sides, we all have negativity buried in us wherever. Max Cady is the shadow of humanity. A terrible, awful human that despite their ills and hate, was genuinely wronged by those whose ethics are supposed to be incorruptible.

Cape Fear is a dirty, dirty film. Much in the same way that ‘Notes from the Underground’ is a dirty read, this film becomes uncomfortable to watch because secretly we are all aware of our flaws and our shadows. Good work Scorsese, good work.

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Posted in: Cinema, Reviews