Monday, May 26, 2008

Cape Fear -- Justice or Truth?

The first glimpse we have of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear is of his bare back as he exercises in a prison cell. Emblazoned on his skin is a tattoo of a huge cross from which hang two scales, one bearing the word "Truth" and a Bible, and the other "Justice". The theme is thus clear from the very start -- can truth and justice be balanced or will one outweigh the other. Can you have both truth and justice?

Cape Fear is a 1991 remake of a 1962 film. In that one Robert Mitchum played Max Cady, and he shows up in this movie as a police lieutenant. Gregory Peck, who played Sam Bowden in the 1962 version, has a minor role as a defense lawyer in this remake; indeed, this was his final appearance in a theatrical film release.
Here, De Niro plays Max Cady, a psychotic criminal with a creepy southern accent released after 14 years behind bars for brutally raping a 16 year old girl. When we next see him he looks refined and well-dressed, having moved to the small town where Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) lives with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). But this is no coincidence . . . . Bowden was Cady's defense lawyer. In one of their first interactions, Cady tells Bowden that he will teach him about loss.

Bowden appears to be a successful attorney with a beautiful family. But this is a veneer. Beneath the surface, he is a womanizer lusting after his law clerk. Leigh is a bitter and brittle wife who knows of her husband's philanderings. Danielle is a 15 year old rebel who has been caught smoking dope and almost expelled from school. This is no "leave-it-to-Beaver" family.

Reunited with his Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese, De Niro gives a strong performance as a vengeance filled, bible-quoting psycopath. In some ways, Cady's character brings back shades of Travis Bickle: both are mentally unbalanced, both have an aggressive character, both want to effect justice on their own terms. De Niro was born for these powerful roles, and in recent movies he has settled, even sold-out, for the easy job (such as Stardust, Meet the Fockers, Shark Tale, etc).

When Bowden's dog is poisoned, he pulls a favor from the local cops and they bring Cady in for a shakedown. In so doing, they see that his body is a living canvas for all the tattoos adorning arms, chest and back. Most of them are scripture verses. Here is a man who believes in truth and justice, but his justice. But the shakedown proves unsuccessful, and Cady is set free.

Scorsese cranks up the psychological tension as Cady seduces and rapes Bowden's girlfriend. In a vicious scene, he savagely assaults her leaving her knowing who he is. He knows she will not give evidence since she will face gruelling cross-examination and public humiliation. Cady knows how to work the system. And the system is slow to respond to such terrorizing.

With Cady free to do more or less what he wants, Bowden starts to unravel. Cady tells him to read the book of Job -- he is going to make him suffer as Job suffered. And then we learn the truth about Bowden -- he buried a crucial piece of evidence at Cady's trial. The raped girl was promiscuous. He hid this because he felt that she did not deserve what happened, and Cady deserved to be locked up for the act. He acted as judge and jury against his own client. And so the central question of the movie is made clear: is justice legitimate without truth? In locking up Cady with tainted evidence, was justice really served? The victim was marred, the culprit was imprisoned. Would it have been right to present evidence that would likely have meant Cady walked? What would we have done in Bowden's position?
As Cape Fear moves towards the climax, Bowden hires a sleazy private investigator, and then agrees to pay for three thugs to beat Cady to a pulp. But things continue to go against him, and he ends up with two dead bodies in his home, courtesy of Cady, and a panicked family.

Driving to a houseboat on the Cape Fear river in North Carolina, they seek escape. But escape is not in the cards. Cady is with them, and stalks them until he confronts them alone in the middle of a storm. Crazed for vengeance, he enacts a courtroom scene for all three, with Bowden in the dock. He yells at Bowden, "I find you guilty, counsellor! Guilty of betrayin' your fellow man! Guilt of betrayin' your country and abrogatin' your oath! Guilty of judgin' me and sellin' me out! With the power vested in me by the kingdom of God, I sentence you to the Ninth Circle of Hell! Now you will learn about loss! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same."

As a Catholic, Scorsese often returns to religious themes in his movies. And Cape Fear is no different. With biblical references painted on De Niro's body, he explores themes of salvation and judgment, guilt and freedom, fear and depravity. Bowden displays a guilty conscience that has caught up with him and he cannot outrun it. His salvation is not in the suffering Cady wants to impose. It is not in the killing of Cady that Bowden wants. Indeed, when he tries to kill Bowden in a climactic fight and ends up with blood on his hands, like Pilate or Lady Macbeth he tries desperately to wash this away, salving his guilty conscience. No, his salvation can only occur in true confession and repentance and faith.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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