'Cape Fear' - Critics Missed Subtext, Symbolism of Scorsese's 1991 Gem
Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of "Cape Fear" is an underappreciated four-star gem.
The film was adapted by Wesley Strick from the original screenplay by James R. Webb, which was an adaptation from the novel "The Executioners" by John D. MacDonald. Twenty years later, the film’s operatic dramatic structure and visual style still deliver a visceral punch. Regarded by many as an over-the-top exercise in just about every aspect of cinema, critics fail to appreciate the context and symbolism of the work that justifies Scorsese’s artistic choices.
The Agitated Camera
It’s essential to understand that, right from the first words of dialogue, the film takes place from the perspective of a 16 year old girl, Danielle (Juliette Lewis in an Oscar-nominated turn). The film is supercharged with sexual imagery and tension as the childish world she inhabits is destroyed by the appearance of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), plunging her headlong into the world of adults and their duplicitous dealings jealousies, and psychological struggles. As she says following the opening credits:
“My reminiscence. I always thought that for such a lovely river, the name was mystifying, Cape Fear, when the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end, and that real life would come crashing in.”
It’s all right there. My reminiscence. This is a story of how reality does indeed come crashing in on Danielle, as all the horrors of the dark undercurrent of her parents’ fractured marriage appear in the physical form of Max Cady – the agent of anxiety, the big bad wolf come to escort her Red Riding Hood into womanhood – by force.
The intensity of events, from both her actual and imagined perspective (she’s obviously not in every scene), motivates the frenetic camera as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s shock editing style.
Viewers will notice that Scorsese’s camera seems to be constantly moving. I can’t think of a scene that takes place with the camera locked down, or that doesn’t begin with some swooping dolly or crane shot that slams us into the action. Scorsese has always been one to begin scenes at the latest possible moment and get out as soon as the dramatically important beat has been hit, allowing Schoonmaker to transition from one dramatically heightened moment right into the next, often with the slamming of a car door or from a moment of decisiveness to an execution of a plan. Scorsese uses numerous whip pans to keep the viewer on edge, and to offer revelatory moments that surprise and frighten.
Scorsese chooses to use oblique and canted angles frequently, also relying on split-focus frames, placing one character is extreme close-up with another in the background. In the scene where Cady confronts Sam in his car, he frames Cady as towering over Sam, emphasizing the former’s power and masculine superiority.
Cady appears perched high atop the Bowden’s home fence during an impossibly explosive fireworks display – one which could not have gone on as long as it seems to in the movie, lasting all the way through the Bowden’s lovemaking and their subsequently falling asleep. All these moments add up to the feeling of being inside the roiling emotional landscape of a teenage girl.
Despite all this, Scorsese also demonstrates his brilliance at knowing when to just let a scene breathe. The incredible scene between De Niro and Lewis, where he seduces her in the school theater, is one of the great moments in modern movies. It goes on for more than 12 minutes – unheard of in contemporary cinema – and it is paralyzing in its suspense. What will Cady do? What will Danielle do? Is she in danger? The scene is entirely dependent on great writing, these two terrific actors, and perfect lighting – just enough to place De Niro in both shadow and light.
Speaking of acting, Sam’s increasing agitation with Cady, and his own turgid soul, gives Nick Nolte tremendous latitude in his performance, and he delivers. Jessica Lange does outstanding work as a woman of deeply repressed anger and resentment, resulting in fiery, passionate outbursts.
Symbolism and Its Importance to Story
On a symbolic level, Max Cady represents the physical manifestation of Sam’s (Nolte) Shadow. In Jungian psychology, the Shadow consists of all our negative and repressed traits. They are the least desirable aspects of our personality – the vulgar, shameful, corrupt aspects of ourselves. We shove them deep inside to avoid having to face them. If you’ve ever met someone who “rubbed you the wrong way,” chances are it’s because you see those negative aspects of yourself in them.
The more you repress those parts of yourself, the more they will pop up at the worst times. The way you defeat the shadow is, in essence, to “own your shit.” You must struggle and grapple with your own dark side, and in doing so release this “shadow material” into your consciousness. Now you are fully aware of it and can either incorporate it or inoculate yourself against its influence.
The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious. The coming of consciousness was probably the most tremendous experience of primeval times, for with it a world came into being whose existence no one had suspected before. "And God said, 'Let there be light"' is the projection of that immemorial experience of the separation of consciousness from the unconscious.
"The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (1940). In CW 9, Part I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. P.284
Sam Bowden has a lot of shadow material, and the movie is his symbolic journey towards a confrontation with his Shadow as represented by Cady. Sam buried potentially exculpatory evidence on Cady when acting as his defense attorney in a rape case. Sam has been unfaithful to his wife Leigh (Lange) in the past and its suggested that Sam almost committed her to an institution. He is flirting with a young law clerk (Illeana Douglas) from his office. He is disconnected from his daughter, Danielle.
The story of the Shadow preying upon the consciousness of Sam exists symbolically right from the opening credits, amidst bombastic and threatening music reminiscent of Hitchcock, title lettering that is fractured (representing both Sam’s fracturing marriage and his own psyche), and the superimposed image of an attacking hawk.
And, in case you missed all that, the Shadow Cady is first glimpsed in his cell in his final day in jail, covered in tattoos showing his obsession with justice. How much more symbolic can you get when he is released from prison amidst gathering black clouds – the Shadow energy being released from Sam’s locked subconscious – and he strides right into camera, engulfing the frame and plunging us into black?
The Shadow’s manifestation in Cady is complete with apparently supernatural, or at least superhuman, powers and the more Sam tries to rid himself of it (rather than accept it), the more powerful it becomes. Cady’s presence impinges upon the Bowden’s geography little by little – stalking Sam outside his home, driving along the road outside it, then he appears on the wall during the fireworks display, actually inside the home in what may or may not have been Sam’s dream, before breaching the house’s peace when he brutally murders Kersek (Joe Don Baker).
Cady is seemingly able to insert himself into dreams, into their home, shape shifts into the maid to kill Kresker, even attaching himself to the drive shaft of their car. No matter how much you try to kill the Shadow, it will just keep digging its claws into your conscious life, eventually causing a nervous breakdown unless it is grappled with directly.
Ultimately, the Shadow demands recognition. It insists on being incorporated into the psyche rather than rejected. This is consistent with Cady’s personal mission – get Bowden to admit his transgression, of passing judgment on his own client when his role was to defend him – to acknowledge and take responsibility for this betrayal. That’s all the Shadow wants, too, and it’s explicated in the scene between Cady and Danielle.
Danielle : Why do you hate my father?
Max: I don't hate him at all. Oh, no. I pray for him. I'm here to help him. We all make mistakes, Danielle. You and I have. At least we try to admit it. Don't we?
Max: But your daddy, he don't. Every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo. Your daddy, too. Every man... ...has to go through hell to reach his paradise. You know what paradise is?
Even the Shadow recognizes the need for Sam to accept and integrate him.
The Big Finish
The final confrontation between Cady and Sam – between Shadow and Psyche – occurs on the waters of Cape Fear. Large bodies of water represent the unconscious, and as the houseboat motors down the river, storm clouds boil up and lightning flashes, signaling the entry into danger. Indeed, the river and its environs – uninhabited overgrown jungle, darkness, isolation – is symbolic of shamanic territory. We have left the physical world. We’ve left the Consciousness altogether. Here our most primal selves are revealed, the raw unforgiving landscapes of our psychology is the terrain. It is here that Sam finally faces and engages in mortal combat not only with the story’s villain, but with his Shadow.
Sam accepts his guilt during the violent mano-a-mano with Cady, which allows him to finally have the power he needs to defeat the Shadow. He comes to a final revelation about the Shadow, as he gets the drop on Cady, handcuffing him to the brass rail of the boat, holding a rock over his head and screaming, “I’m going to kill you!”
Cady answers, “You already sacrificed me, Counselor.” In other words, the Shadow tells the Psyche that it was already rejected long ago. It’s already been wandering in the wilderness. Killing it changes nothing. Only integration can make both complete.
The final images are not only the catharsis the audience needs for the story, but completes Sam’s journey of Shadow integration. Cady literally begins speaking in tongues which is not, in Scorsese’s home Catholic dogma, representation of demonic possession, but exactly the opposite. It happens when the Holy Spirit is received by someone. Cady’s story is over. He has received the admission of guilt he sought but drowns, as he should, for his crimes. The Shadow has also been incorporated by Sam, and thus it literally is consumed by the waters – by the unconscious – but not before the two finally lock eyes … they will be eternally connected.
We are left with Sam and his family, stripped of everything, scrabbling about, hunched in the rain and mud like primitive mankind, in the middle of nowhere – having survived the traumatic psychological battle.
Of Danielle’s final lines:
We never spoke about what happened, at least not to each other. Fear, I suppose, that to remember his name or what he did would mean letting him into our dreams. And me, I hardly dream about him anymore. Still, things won’t ever be the way they were before he came. But that’s alright. Because if you hang on to the past, you die a little every day. And for myself, I know I’d rather live. The End.
The textual interpretation is that the movie is over, that the family moves on, yet forever represses the actual events. For Danielle, at least, she seems to let go of what transpired and look to the future. And yet, there is a subtextual reading that is not quite so hopeful. It suggests that Danielle is now going to repress what’s happened, and as her film image literally turns to the negative, it implies that she has now created her own Shadow – that aspects of her own behavior and burgeoning sexuality contributed to the horror.