Blurring the Lines Between Hero and Villain: Cape Fear (1991)

Martin Scorsese’s unique selling point of many of his films is blurring the line between villain and hero. He loves to delve into the psyche of what makes a hero and whether that hero is flawed enough that in someone else’s eyes, they could be classified as a villain. Cape Fear is no exception to this rule and is in fact, an amplification of it.

The original Cape Fear released in 1962 presented the story of an innocent lawyer, Sam Bowden who is being incessantly stalked by a psychopath. While the essence of that story remains in Scorsese’s remake, Sam Bowden isn’t the ‘good guy’ that he appears to be. Portrayed by Nick Nolte, he is someone who believes that he has everything in place in his life – aside from the fact he’s cheating on his wife, he has a lacking relationship with his teenage daughter and he is harbouring a secret that could cost him his job.

Enter Max Cady, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Cady is a convicted rapist released from prison with vengeance in his ledger so quite clearly, he is the villain. Unfortunately for Bowden, Cady has worked out what his dark secret is – that he withheld evidence that could have had Cady’s sentence shortened.

While he never denies the fact that he did the crime he was convicted of, this means that Bowden didn’t follow through with his duty as lawyer and is in the firing line for Cady’s revenge. The audience can see the reasoning for Bowden’s ‘mistake’ – he knew how evil Cady truly was and put his daughter in the shoes of the girl who had been assaulted. He knew that he needed to be locked up, which we can empathise with. Cady doesn’t feel the same – he’s read up on all the law books that he could get his hands on to find out what went wrong in his case and has practically classified himself as an attorney with his knowledge.

He knows that he was done wrong by Bowden – and that’s not the only secret of his that he knows. Through stalking him in his car, he realises that Bowden is cheating on his wife, portrayed by Jessica Lange. An important element of Cady’s character is his understanding of the Bible – which he uses to justify a lot of his actions. Adultery is one of the worst sins you can commit in Cady’s eyes, so he knows that he can use this to his advantage against Bowden.

Opening up the subject of religion to give someone motive to do awful things in thrillers isn’t a new tactic used by directors. In fact, it can often times be draining how often it is used – but for Cape Fear, it works perfectly.

Both Cady and Bowden are tormented by sins of the flesh in different ways; Cady has an appetite for young girls and Bowden cannot keep his fidelity inside of his marriage. Cady doesn’t seem to notice this though, he’s done his time so he believes everything that he does now is to make Bowden aware of his sins and to help him ‘repent’ for them.

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I am like God, and God like me. I am as large as God, He is as small as I. He cannot above me, nor I beneath Him be. Selatius, 17th Century. – Max Cady.

While he is using his faith to justify everything that he does, he almost believes that he is the second coming and that God has given him the authority and the power to teach Bowden a lesson. This is naturally not the case and the audience can see that but Cady fully believes it.

A piece in his game of chess with Bowden is his daughter, Danielle. Danielle is the same age as the girl that Cady raped and is in a push-pull battle with her parents – she believes that she is more mature than she is and is drawn to things that she isn’t old enough for. The dramatic evil of Cady seduces her as shown in the scene where he poses as her drama teacher. Despite the fact she knows that he’s capable of, she is still drawn to him like a moth to the flame – which Cady uses to his advantage in the climactic scene.

Thrillers like this are now commonplace in the industry – especially a stalker/slasher. But Scorsese’s charm is his balance of setting up characters so that the audience knows what their intentions are long before they come to fruition on screen. We know from the opening shot that Cady is heavily reliant upon the Bible and that he loves to read but that he is also strong as an ox. The dramatic score alongside this opens up the villain motif but by the ending scene, we realise that the only truly innocent people in the film are Bowden’s wife and daughter and that Bowden is equal parts hero to villain.

He goes against the law himself by setting three men upon Cady – and Cady is well aware of this. He still tries to hide his affair from his wife even though she knows of it and he turns his anger against Cady to his daughter and her promiscuous ways. By the final scene, the audience know that they aren’t on Cady’s side but that they also aren’t entirely on Bowden’s side either. When they reach the Neanderthal fight scene of smashing each other on the head with rocks, you can’t help but hope that it ends with both of them perishing at the other’s hand – finally putting the cat and mouse game to a stop.

Scorsese’s work is nothing short of masterful and there is a reason that he is the acclaimed director he is today – Cape Fear is one of his strongest works as he manages to supply stunning visuals and realistic characters. Alongside a star-studded cast, the film was set for the success it was and while it’s a little gimmicky in some places, it’s secured its place in history.

Overall, I would give Cape Fear ★★★★.

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