Midnight Screenings: Cape Fear (1991)

When Cape Fear’s antagonist Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison early in the film, he strides toward the screen in a gesture almost as terrifying as David Lynch’s famous, signal defilement of the audience’s body the same year in Twin Peaks, when the demonic Bob gets so close to us that he nearly assimilates us into his body. It feels like he’s about to leave the diegesis, to enter our world, to have his way with the audience. He presages a film that goes for the throat: split diopter shots, reverse images, cameras tilting on their axes like several screws were loose, film negatives enervated of color, creeping, lecherous dolly shots. This stylistically omnivorous film is cinema-addicted and cinema-addled in equal measure. Martin Scorsese’s ode to the days when Hollywood B-pictures genuinely knew what “B” meant (rather than striving for domesticated A-picture prestige and getting a C like so many films today), Cape Fear is, perhaps even more than his 1985 film After Hours (a quite literal attempt to convert his frustration and rage into a plaything), the result of Scorsese letting his hair down. This is a clammy, sweaty, anxious film, nearly panting and falling over with its own energy, and it’s pretty wonderful to boot.

Another early moment suggests that our intoxication with a film screen that is now devouring us whole is precisely the point. The screenplay metaphorically lards up the value of style with an early conversation about the balance of movement and stability in an airline advertisement, and Scorsese seems to be putting that balance to the test with every shot, forcing us to walk the ricketiest rope bridge he could find. There’s so much work being done to fold in and massage out motifs of water, cinema, and smoke, figuring each as obfuscating and revealing, mutable yet omnipresent, pliable and amorphous yet very much present, that the film almost loses itself to playful gesturing, never precisely connecting its dots. But the confidence of the film keeps us working double-time just to stay afloat, daring itself forward unceasingly. Rather than crossing all the T’s and dotting the I’s, it leaves them unfinished and pointy and tries to prick us with them. In one sense, Cape Fear is “about” cinema in much the same way that Oliver Stone’s same-year JFK vexes and distorts us, invites us into a portrait it then vandalizes. The Bowdens, Sam (Nick Nolte), who withheld evidence years before on Max, and Sam’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis), are the nominal frustrated figures, but we are really the subjects. Why are we watching, the film asks, and rather than punishing us like so many other mean-spirited works, it pitilessly experiments with us, turning us into both its laboratory variables and its sand-box play-things.

Scorsese’s hall of mirrors and bag of cinematic tricks is no less exploratory and adventurous than JFK, and it also doubles similarly as an expression of how stylistic manipulation both reveals and obscures wider masks, deceptions, and doublings in society writ large. “Is marriage synonymous with deception,” one character asks before being roped into Cady’s spider web, and the film does similar work to disturb, twist, and pervert domestic norms of compassion, complacency, and power, only to suggest in the ease with which they get twisted that they’re already on edge and corrupted anyway, that Cady is more of a conjuration of pent-up frustration and unasked questions plaguing everyday American existence. He is squirrely yet as slow and as gravid as molasses, a stalking wraith that seems to exist liminally in our world and his own. “I don’t know whether to look at him or read him,” one character remarks, and this seems to be the provocation of the film: can such a lurid film legitimate and withstand analysis? Should it be analyzed? Is looking analysis? What are the dialectics of interest and entrapment, interest in this uncanny figure and introspection about why we watch him and find him so fascinating? Should we give in to cinema, immerse ourselves in the experience, or maintain a critical distance?

Scorsese clearly has fun playing the provocateur without answers, visually intimating that Cady is a kind of avenging angel, an amoral moralist that intimates the gas leaking all around and simply lights the match. Most of Scorsese’s gestures are lurid and slimy, almost as though the film recognizes that it can support only a broad-strokes sketch of a parable rather than a crystalline argument. (In the 2010s, one gets the sense this would be played for Oscarbait, a gesture of supreme under-confidence about the possibilities of cinema masking itself in Fincher-esque, confident craftmanship, whereas as Scorsese’s baroque, outré vision here genuinely reveals a confidence unknown to most directors today). Early on, we learn that Nolte’s “crime” was “protecting” women from Cady by hiding information that one of his victims was “promiscuous.” Later we learn that this is all part of the system, that there are “so many ways in the books to lean on an undesirable,” including promiscuous women. Scorsese cuts into us with a thousand little gestures, stylistic cuts disturbing any easy or stable equations between power and identity, safety and punishment, sanctity and demonic energy. He casts Robert Mitchum, the Cady role in the original, as a police higher-up who skirts around the law while maintaining probable deniability. Even more salaciously, Scorsese has Gregory Peck, the beacon of virtue in the original, as Cady’s defense attorney scorning Bowden. Working less as a portrait than an impasto, he lets the texture and mess of these moments hang out and drip off the screen, as opposed to encasing them in meaning and neutralizing them. There are no sacred cows, the film gleefully desecrating the original’s corpse and letting the original’s participants in on the fun.

The film’s provocations won’t be too all tastes – Cady is an abuser who pretends to be a victim, and so is Sam, and the film isn’t particularly invested in rendering the ethical conundrums here at the manifest level – but that doesn’t make the film uncomplicated. At one point, a judge quotes “our great Negro educator” Booker T. Washington’s “I will let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him,” and this is such an inspired engagement with a century’s worth of paradox: Southern gentility saving face by quoting black figures who are relatively assimilable to maintaining the status quo, preserving good faith and compassion and occluding the violence lingering right below the surface. Later, a private detective played by Joe Don Baker with phenomenal flop-sweat seems to give the judge a delayed answer: “The South evolved in fear. Fear of the Indian. Fear of the slave. Fear of the damn union. The south has a fine tradition of savoring fear.” Scorsese skewers, between one period and another, the masculinity of Lost Causes and the mild-mannered modernity of Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden and his complicity with systems of oppression the film can only catch in its periphery.

Here, and elsewhere, Scorsese is clearly having a ball driving so many nails into any equation of domesticity, justice, protection, and vengeance with virtue. Even off-hand gestures carry submerged depths, like when Sam walks upstairs one morning and his daughter runs past him without ever coming into focus, a phantasm barely known to him anymore, a figure whose inner-most desires and sensations are hopelessly opaque to Sam’s norms of justice. I was also fond of a bit where she is listening to Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience” and watching the video for Janes Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” without audio, at the same time, suggestive of a saturation uncoupling audio and video signifiers. Or the lovely detail that when Sam broaches the subject of Cady’s relationship to his past to Jessica Lange, he spends more time talking about why the dog shouldn’t be on the table than getting to the point, maintaining a tenuous aura of domesticity and paternalistic control to preserve his sanity and sense of self-worth in a situation that is already testing it more than he can imagine.

I could have picked several dozen other moments like that, each working, termetically, to devour the film from the inside out, forming a moving totality that is much less invested in coherence than in verve and disturbed vivacity. Scorsese would aim for this gloriously unsteady scaffold twenty years later in 2010’s Shutter Island, and one only has to compare the two to see how deliriously unsafe Cape Fear is in comparison. Both ostensibly work blue, but while Shutter Island strangles its palpitating impulses and psychotic energy in a thoroughly empty, hollowed-out, squared-off mystery plot that thins out into yet another jigsaw puzzle, Cape Fear salivates and slobbers all over the screen with animalistic zest. (I can think of no better example for the damage that Christopher Nolan and David Fincher’s popularity, which is linked to but not precisely the same as a criticism of their own sometimes very solid films, has done to cinema since the turn of the century.) Cape Fear is lively, live-wire, run-amok cinema with a capital-C, so furiously and fearsomely committed to being itself that you can barely grab hold of the screen from the sweat it exerts. This is Scorsese as carnival barker, a ringleader of a mad carnival just daring us to look away.

Score: 9/10

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