Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cape Fear

I’m going to teach you about loss

-Max Cady-

The excellent Shutter Island is coming out this weekend, so I thought it the perfect time to revist Scorsese’s other toe dip into the Horror genre, Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is probably the least loved Scorsese movie. Scorsese is, as I’ve mentioned, my favorite filmmaker. I maintain that there is no such thing as a bad Scorsese film. But while New York New York and King Of Comedy have plenty of followers thanks to their status as a clusterfucks, and his other movies that people deem too mainstream The Departed, The Color Of Money and The Aviator are, well frankly much better films, Cape Fear just gets left out in the cold, with precious few defenders. Perhaps it is more appropriate to call Cape Fear Scorsese’s least essential film.

Cape Fear is just an odd movie. An unabashedly mainstream thriller cum melodrama slash horror film, that is underlined by an edge that is frankly perverse. If there’s a film more steeped in psychosexual imagery and violence to play in the cineplex, outside of The DePalma canon it does not spring directly to mind. I mean hell the dog’s not even safe.

But it’s precisely that oddity of Cape Fear that I find so compelling. It’s a film made nearly hypnotic by the things it does right and wrong.

First lets get the wrong out of the way. It’s a film plagued by miscasting, first with Nick Nolte straightjacketed in the role of the straightlaced lawyer who has the wrath of God come down upon him. Nick Nolte is a fine actor but one thing he does not project is straightforward stability. It feels like every scene begins with him hiding a bottle just out of frame. Furthering the problem is Juliet Lewis, who as you might remember, I hate with the passion of a thousand suns. Its no exaggeration to say she’s my least favorite actress, and every moment she spends on screen is a moment where I am wincing. Furthermore, it is the only Scorsese movie that I would argue feels dated. It keeps doing this thing where it flashes to pointless, negative images that screams “Madonna Video in 1991”.

Still that last problem hints at one of the movies strengths. One of the things that I love about Scorsese is the way he uses his “minor” films to conduct his greatest experiments (“Can I make this shot a Teddy Bear propped up in a chair ominous?” you can hear him asking) Scorsese even gives a nod to himself “selling out” while simotanously drawing a clear line between his true investment in the project and Hollywood Pablum by setting an early scene in a theater showing that paragon of cinema Problem Child. Following one of his clumsy negative shots of Nolte and Jessica Lange (in fine form) doing the horizontal mambo, Scorsese showcases a startling Montage of an unsatisfied Lange in fixing her makeup in close up, intercut with startling fades to primary colors. The scene which moments before seemed faintly ridiculous takes on a Hitchcockian level of sexuality mixed with primal unease.

But then afterwards we cut to Robert DeNiro in front of bad CGI fireworks in an obvious Green screen. It’s Cape Fear in a nutshell, from the ridiculous to the sublime to the ridiculous again.

Robert De Niro embraces the spirit fully. Remember this is back when De Niro was still the guy who flung himself head first into everything rather then the guy who made you hold your head in hands wondering what the fuck happened. While Robert Mitchum played Cady like the worst possible scenario for redneckism, a lizard eyed dead souled cretin, De Niro goes the opposite way. Investing Cady with a mix of backwoods transcendentalism and Nietzschian . Scorsese plays right into it, framing De Niro’s rippling muscles covered in totemistic tattoos, making Cady such a powerful figure that he can even walk through the screen.

He's someone who can take a face full of boiling water and melted wax over his hand without flinching (One of my favorite lines in the film, “Grandaddy was a snake handler and Grandma drank Strychnine”). He’s so intimidating in the role that he gives Robert Freaking Mitchum pause (Another pleasure of the movie, it gives Old Hollywood fan Scorsese a chance to work with such true old school icons as Peck and Mitchum. For the first time since John Carradine in Boxcar Bertha if I recall correctly. He gets great performances from both. Particularly Mitchum as a cop none too concerned about the letter of the law. Peck is great, playing against his persona as a sanctimonious bastard.) Joe Don Baker also does a freaking tremendous job (You haven’t heard Thus Spoke Zathurstra until you’ve heard Baker pronounce it).

The best move Scorsese makes is making Cady smart (In one of his best scense De Niro brags that he can “Out Philosophize” Nolte). When Nolte offers him a pay off of ten thousand dollars (and remember these are nineteen ninety one dollars) Cady breaks down the amount showing what a pittance it really is, with a skill that surprises both Nolte and the audience. As mentioned the threat of Cady is sexual as well as physical. The fact that he was in prison for Rape is constant motif, the clear implication that he doesn’t want to take away Nolte’s wife and child through violence alone, he wants to taint them.

In a way Cady becomes for Scorsese, a perverse nighmare version of Ethan Edwards, Ford’s famous protaginist in The Searchers. In Scorsese’s tremendous video essay, A Personal Journey Through American Cinema, he mentions that for Edwards, “The Physical Death Of The Indian isn’t enough”. Likewise Cady turns away from the chance to merely kill Nolte several times (most pointedly during the scene in which Nolte’s hired goons fail to take Cady down). Cady is the intellect tainted, physical pain, physical death isn’t enough. Bowden must suffer mental and more importantly for Scorsese; spiritual, anguish.

For Cady sleeping with a woman is roughly the same thing as a dog marking his territory. And the two sequences, that are the films most famous, and not coincidentally its most sickeningly resonant are Cady’s seduction of Lewis and his seduction, rape and mutilation of the woman Nolte has been having an affair with (played by the great Illiana Douglas).

The scene of the actual assault is horrific, vile; maybe the one sequence in Scorsese’s oeuvre that can truly be called gratuitous (aside from the head in the vice in Casino). But the scene leading up to it is masterful, perhaps the greatest example of Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, I’ve ever seen. Trying to get over Nolte Douglas is drunk in a bar, flirting with Cady, who is doing absolutely nothing threatening. By the time we cut to them in bed together with Douglas drunkenly excited (with an all too real mixture of amusement, incredulity and genuine arousal) by the bondage Cady’s engaging her in. We know its going to be bad. We have no idea how bad. Its one of the most sickening scenes of Scorsese’s career. Its not a trivial. Greer and what she goes through are given full consideration. It’d be unfair to call Cape Fear a misogynistic film. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

In a way Cape Fear climaxes with this scene. Afterwards Scorsese swings wildly into farce. Particularly in the “trial” scene in which a now burned Cady and Bowden argue to an invisible “judge” that at once breaks the fourth wall and becomes a Bergmanesque induction of God. While the scene is effective and thematically consistent with Scorsese’s oeuvre, that doesn’t change the fact that it is also faintly ridiculous. The rest of the movie is a mixture of Eyes Wide Shut (With Cady tearing the nuclear family apart rather then strengthening it the way normal Spielberg produced film would) and Nightmare On Elm Street (With Cady jumping up like a Jack In The Box, infamously hanging himself under Bowden’s car and the film expecting us to believe that De Niro would make an effective drag queen.) Although it does pull it all together for the climax. When Cady sinks down speaking in tongues its hard not to feel some measure of awe if only for De Niro’s and Cady's utter commitment.

Cape Fear remains a troubling film, in more ways then one. Most dismiss it as little more then a detour in Scorsese’s career. And to a certain extent their right. But it’s a detour that reveals some great truths about Scorsese as an artist. Cape Fear proves that even when he’s making a mainstream summer blockbuster, Scorsese cannot help but be irrepressibly himself.


Victoria said...

Good critique but Judy Greer doesn't play Nolte's work colleague (she would have been 16 at the time!) it's Illiana Douglas.
You've got a new blog follower.

Bryce Wilson said...

Ah! Great catch.

Thanks for the read. Honored to have a new reader as sharp as you.

(No seriously thanks. I've been waiting for someone to comment on this review like forever. lol)