DIRECTOR Martin Scorcese's first foray into psychological thriller has only one word to describe: knockout.
A loose remake from J. Lee Thompson's 1962 classic thriller of the same name, Scorcese's version of CAPE FEAR manages to recreate its shocking original concept with even further degree of psychological impact. In this remake, he has design every frame of the picture to stagger the senses in order to manipulate his audience. During quiet scenes, the camera is in constant, unsettling motion. During big scenes, shock cuts to weird, menacing angles and reality-bending, high-tech optics accompanied with dark images of eroticism and violence.
For this new version, Nick Nolte plays lawyer Sam Bowden (a role originally played by Gregory Peck), a mean-spirited womanizer who has cheated on his embittered wife Leigh, played by Jessica Lange. (In the original, the Bowdens are morally pristine, impossibly upright citzens). The family has moved to a backwater Florida town for a fresh start, but Sam has already flirting around with his clerk, Lori (Illeana Douglas). His wife, in the meantime, is often brooding at home, venting her bile on teenage daughter Dani (Juliette Lewis). The main plot here focuses on Max Cady (Robert DeNiro, playing Robert Mitchum's original role) who just got released from prison after a 14-year sentence for sexual assault. Cady has only one thing in his mind: to revenge against his public defender, Sam Bowden who has buried a court report attesting to his victim's promiscuity back then. For years, Cady has spent himself rejuvenated into a wily layer and con-man psychologist, and also a person who is well-read in philosophy and literature. In order to destroy Max' career as well as his family, he is first poisoned the family dog, beats up and mutilates Lori (one of the most frightening rape-and-torture scene ever put in mainstream film), and comes close to twisting Dani's adolescent frustrations into sympathy wit his cause successfully goading Sam into violence. Sam has the police chief (Robert Mitchum, in an excellent cameo) try to harass Cady into leaving town, hires a sleazy private eye (a flawless Joe Don Baker) to have him beaten up, and offers him money to go away. But his plan eventually fails to get rid of Cady. So Sam uses his family as bait to lure Cady into his house to kill him. However, his careful plan backfires into a bloody mess, causing the private eye died horribly and Sam, along with his family has to flee from the law. They lay low at their houseboat on the Cape Fear River, where Cady has followed them all along by clinging to the underside of their ATV.
In Scorcese's vision, the film offers no heroes that often found in mainstream thrillers, but only victims and their tormenters. Nothing here is actually tone down for the sake of mainstream appeal because Scorcese has strongly intended to make his film as disturbing as possible. Everybody's here are mercilessly photographed to look as ugly as they get.
Robert DeNiro, in his Oscar-nominated performance, delivers a tour de force as the renegade Max Cady who sports a sinewy body awash with jailhouse tattoos. Nick Nolte fares well who makes great impression whenever he winces, cowers and swears; even normal activities like brushing his teeth are filmed in extreme close-ups to make him look subhuman. Jessica Lange, in the meantime, looks amazingly pinched in her sneakily sexy performance, while 17-year-old Juliette Lewis delivers a surprisingly impressive Oscar-nominated performance in one particular (and most discussed) scene ever seen: Dani is lured into a school teacher, disguised by Cady as his new drama teacher. Although Dani eventually known who he was, she doesn't back away. Instead she has been spell bounded over his hypnotic power the way he flirts at her and immediately fell attracted to him. She erotically sucked his thumb and kissing him before finally bolting the scene in terror -- at which point audiences could start breathing again after wondering what would happen to Dani next.
The film's final scene, set at the Cape Fear River involving Max Cady trying to kill Sam and his family in their houseboat during a thunderstorm is shot with magnificent, unsettling motion and creative camera angles that best qualified as one of the most suspenseful cliffhanger endings ever made.
Quite simply to put, Scorcese's CAPE FEAR ranks as one of the best psychological thrillers ever seen of all time.
If there is any flaw, Scorcese may have been a bit exaggerated the way he has distinguished his nasty characters with lack of moral presence that at times audiences will feel largely insulted.