Sunday, November 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.14: Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 57/B-

The best kind of remakes are reimaginings, and to Martin Scorsese’s credit, that’s what he sought to do with 1991’s Cape Fear. Pitched to Scorsese by his friend Steven Spielberg as a way for one of his films to make a profit, the director decided to take the 1962 minor classic and revamp it as a florid Hitchcock tribute, complete with a total revamp of the family dynamic to better suit Scorsese’s thematic interests. But the film’s execution isn’t completely on point, and by the end it flies completely off the rails.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) has just been released from prison for the rape and battery of a young woman, and he has it out for his former lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). Sam has relocated from Atlanta to the small town of New Essex, North Carolina with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and teenaged daughter Dani (Juliette Lewis), but the family isn’t as happy as it seems. As Cady terrorizes the Bowdens, he brings out their deep-seated resentment of one another.

Cape Fear is notable for how far Scorsese goes in the opposite direction of the low-key original. Where the 1962 version made everything implicit, this version is wildly over-the-top at almost every turn. Scorsese seems to have envisioned the film as Alfred Hitchcock by way of Oliver Stone- the first shots of Cady working out before he’s released, walking up to a wide angle lens are great, but when Scorsese keeps the same excessive style in the early scenes with the family (see: Cady under a sky of fireworks, florid camerawork during Nolte/Lange’s love scene), it can’t help but feel like he’s trying to hard to unnerve us.

Really, the film is more effective in its quieter moments. Nolte realizes a piano wire is missing, and while there’s no reason for him to think that there’s something amiss, we can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Even better is the use of a teddy bear connected to wire during a stakeout, where the slightest movement makes us prepare for the worst. It’s a red herring, but that doesn’t change how nerve-wracking the tension is in that scene.

Still, Cape Fear feels wildly uneven, in no small part because of the cast. There’s a number of memorable supporting turns, both from the stars of the original making quick appearances (Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam) and especially Ileana Douglas as a lawyer who’s infatuated with Sam and Joe Don Baker as a shady private eye. But two of the major characters are badly miscast: Nolte makes for an overblown and blustery Sam, and Lange gives a rare terrible performance (maybe the worst in a Scorsese movie) as Leigh, whose mental health issues are telegraphed with every gesture and glance she makes. She’s going for depressive and mostly just seems insane.

Still, De Niro’s Cady is another terrific creation, his sing-songy southern cadence barely hiding the fury beneath his voice. It’s a big performance, but he grounds his leeriness and intimidation with a terrifying sense of righteousness in his actions. Cady reveals that he was raped in prison, and rather than taking into consideration his own horrific actions, he responds by getting religion and bringing fire and brimstone-style vengeance. He’s even better when playing off of Douglas or Lewis, preying on their weaknesses (jealousy and teenage insecurity, repsectively) like the scariest sexual predator in the world.

It’s a bit shocking to see how terrible most of Juliette Lewis’s performances from the mid-90s onward are, considering how natural and unaffected she is here (especially compared to the Act-Off Nolte and Lange are having). The film’s best scene, by a considerable margin, is between her and De Niro in her school’s theater. Scorsese calms down on the pyrotechnics here, using low lighting and claustrophobic framing to heighten the tension, and Dani’s youthful bashfulness at Cady’s clear advances (combined with fake concern and non-judgment) only escalates the creep-factor. And that’s before Cady’s come-ons lead to actual contact (see: sticking his thumb in her mouth, audience gaping in horror). Lewis plays the scene with a combination of willingness and fear that’s both disarming and frightening at the same time.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in Cape Fear unless he could make the family unhappy, the heroes morally murky. That’s effective in the first half, as Cady stresses Sam’s betrayal of his lawful duties and we learn more about his past infidelities. There’s a scene where Cady references from the Book of Job,  a tale of a man who had to go through hell to reach salvation. He’s referring to his own difficulties in jail, but it could just as easily refer to how the Bowdens have to go through hell to see their care for each other restored.

Pity that Wesley Strick’s script is so schlocky. It’s not just that a number of the more explicit scenes of sexual violence come close to seeming needlessly icky and exploitative (something Strick would repeat to worse effect in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street). It’s that the film essentially devolves to a bad horror movie in the final twenty minutes, with Cady going from a measured creepiness to a standard unstoppable villain, but with extra crazy as De Niro goes right over the top with the rest of the film. At a certain point (probably when burning De Niro and putting the final scene in the middle of a bombastic effects-driven storm sequence), the film stops being scary and starts being silly.

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