The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Cape Fear’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown chose “Cape Fear.”

The info:

The Movie: “Cape Fear” (1991)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange

Director: Martin Scorsese

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A convicted rapist, released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence, stalks the family of the lawyer who originally defended him.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 76 percent

Our take:

Brown: If you’ve been an ardent reader of the JOE-DOWN, there’s a pattern to when I pick movies: Find something Froemming will hate. Why? I don’t know, I guess I’m just a sick guy.

But this week, I felt generous. I wanted to watch a highly regarded movie and one that I’ve never seen before in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.” I’d go as far as to say that Scorsese is my favorite director, and this was his first movie after “Goodfellas,” my all-time favorite flick.

This is also the basis of one of my favorite “Simpsons” episodes, “Cape Feare” from season 5. But I’ll do my best to not make any Sideshow Bob rake references. Well, OK, maybe just get one out of my system.

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So we got Scorsese, we got Robert De Niro, we got a chilling musical score and we have a retelling of the 1962 flick starring Robert Mitchum. We’re all good, right Froemming?

Froemming: Not at all. If this were a B-movie, then sure. It is good for that. Unfortunately, this is a Martin Scorsese movie, and not a very good one. It starts off solid, but man does it go down hill in the final act — to the point I was angry for having watched it in the first place, that’s how terrible the ending was.

Like you, I am a huge Scorsese fan, which makes this all the more frustrating for me. But, if anything, it gave the world one of the greatest “Simpsons” episodes ever.

Brown: I would not have guessed I would have gotten that reaction from you. Kinda curious to dig deeper into this rabbit hole.

But before we do that, we already set the scene with De Niro’s Max Cady doing dips in his prison cell right before he heads to his parole hearing. Cady has been in jail the last 14 years for rape and he’s granted his release. And all the while we get some foreboding music which has become pretty iconic.

Then, we get a WASPy family, with Sam Bowden (Nolte) as the head of the household along with his wife Leigh (Lange) and 15-year-old daughter Danny (Juliette Lewis). And Cady keeps crossing paths with the Bowden family. I’m uncomfortable thinking about it already.

Froemming: In my usually twisted sense of humor, I kept saying Max was just trying to be a friend to Sam, and Sam was just taking it the wrong way. But Max is generally pissed at Sam, because of irregularities he found while studying law in prison (and also getting WWE-ripped lifting weights and getting more tattoos than Leonard in “Memento”).

This is a classic story about how if one man would have just done his job right, this hell unleashed upon his family would never have happened.

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Brown: Irregularities is putting it lightly. Turns out, in his days as a public defender in Atlanta, Sam withheld evidence that Cady’s victim was promiscuous, which could have helped him escape the charges (I cringed knowing that was/is a way to beat a rape wrap, but that’s a longer rant for another day). Cady admits he’s beaten other rape charges before, so Sam decided to disregard that bit of evidence and do what he thought was best.

Dude should totally be disbarred for that action, but it does raise an interesting moral question to think about the whole movie. In the same shoes, would you do what Sam did? I went back and forth on that.

Froemming: Again, this movie starts out strong. And Max popping up randomly sure adds to the suspense. From finding out a way to be more obnoxious than the movie “Problem Child” he and the Bowdens are watching in a theater, to Max buying them dinner, there is a sense of doom whenever Max shows up. But, having read the law, he knows how to terrify Sam while, at first, not breaking the law. But since Max is a sociopath, the law soon goes out the window for him.

Also, I believe he stole his wardrobe from the captain from the music group Captain & Tennille.

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Brown: Max Cady could have been a huge fan of “Muskrat Love” before he had to serve time. That is never solved.

But going back to Cady’s method of terrorizing the Bowdens, it’s a stroke of genius for the character. When he was convicted in Atlanta, Max was illiterate. Sam mentions that he had to read the court documents to Max because he couldn’t read. But, we see in the start, that Max studied up in prison, read about his case and went so far as to represent himself in appeals. And yes, he talks down to Sam by saying they’re just two lawyers talking shop.

But it’s the one muttered line that sets the whole thing in motion: “You’re going to learn about loss.” When a convicted rapist that was recently released from prison says that to me, I don’t care if you’re within the law in regards to waking me up with a fireworks display, watching my family eat dinner or interrupting a movie with your obnoxious laugh and giant cigar. You have me on edge and I want you away from my family ASAP.

Perhaps the most eerie part about Max Cady: He may be the only person who found “Problem Child” to be funny.

Froemming: I love how a serial rapist like Max thinks he was the victim in that case. It just showed how insane he actually is. But his terrorizing goes into darker places, like when he kills the family dog.

Now, I hate movies where animals die. It is the main reason I’ll never watch Disney movies with animals in them. They are bound to die, because Walt Disney was a monster.

So begins the question: How is Max gaining entrance into the home, when there is never any sign of a breaking and entering? The dog was poisoned, but how? It is in the later part of the film where things start going off the rails, and not in a good way, sans Joe Don Baker. He makes everything great.

Hell, during the opening credits when I saw his name, I yelled “Joe Don Baker is Mittens!” Because I’m a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, and his film “Mitchell” remains my favorite episode of that show.

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Brown: The darkest place Max goes is raping and beating a co-worker of Sam’s in Lori. Sam and Lori have this relationship that, at least to me, had not gone into a full-blown affair but she was wanting it to head that way. Welp, Max meets her in a bar where she’s drunk before finding somewhere private to pull off his heinous act. And because she’s in law and knows how invasive and hard rape convictions are to get, Lori won’t press charges. And she’s just a pawn in this to get to Sam. I’m not watching the movie and just having to recall this stuff makes my stomach turn. Even down to his bizarre bayou accent that could only be topped years later by Nic Cage in “Con Air,” De Niro is terrifying. The Boogeyman doesn’t need to be jump-scaring everyone. He can be the guy sweet-talking those you hold dearest before he harms them because he gets off on it.

Froemming: Well, with his hands tied, Sam hires Claude Kersek (Baker) a private detective, to look into Max. It seems Max had some encounters in prison (murdered cell mate) that add fuel to the fire.

Now, either Max has an elaborate plan or is as paranoid as Nixon, because he records conversations he has with Sam — one in which Sam threatens him being the big one down the line here. Because, Kersek offers Sam an option: He will get three guys to “take care” of Max. Sam is not for it at first, but changes his mind.

This is when the film lost me. Three guys beat Max with lead pipes and chains, and like Jason from “Friday the 13th,” Max is an unstoppable machine. But he uses this beating and his taped conversation to disbar Sam. Which is fine and all, but we now see that Scorsese was influenced by early 80s slasher films, and I began slowly hating this movie.

Brown: OK, slow down. You skipped over probably the most unsettling part of this movie: Max having a one-on-one with Danny.

Because she’s a teenager and therefore must be moody, Danny has been clashing with her parents over having to stay in the house while Max is stalking them. During all this, she’s also going to summer school, which includes a drama class. One night the drama teacher calls and turns out, Max is lying about being the teacher. So, he gets Danny to come into the school auditorium alone (walking through a hallway straight out of “Silence of the Lambs”) to meet with Max, whose smoking a joint and charming his way into Danny’s existence. Did we mention that Max was charged with raping a teenager?!

From Cady singing Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” for a nice modern touch (for 1991) to having Danny call him Mr. Do-Right all the way to Danny making out with Max and sucking his thumb… Good lord it’s unsettling. I typed at least five times in my notes: RED FLAG, DANNY. WHY THE (REDACTED) ARE YOU STILL THERE? RUN!

Now, as for Joe Don Baker and the three goons fight. Yes, a little far-fetched. But keep in mind that Kersek drinks a cocktail of Jim Beam and Pepto-Bismol on the reg, so I can’t imagine those three guys were the most qualified badasses he could have gotten.

Froemming: If you get cracked in the skull with pipes and chains, I don’t care how unqualified the attacker is, you are not getting up from that. It was a terrible scene.

Yes, Max and Danny’s scene made me feel gross just watching it. Max is a rapist, and he doesn’t even care if he will be caught on school property, which I am pretty sure would violate his parole. Hell, he’s probably not allowed to go into a Chuck-E-Cheese. It is the last scene of this movie I found terrifying, because it is all downhill from there.

Brown: Don’t forget, though, Max does know the law. Hell, he turns it on Sam when instead of the Bowdens getting a restraining order on Max, he gets a restraining order on Sam following the beating because he wore the wire. Also, nice little Easter egg: Max’s lawyer is played by Gregory Peck, who was both in the original “Cape Fear” and the famous lawyer in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

And I will agree with you, the last third of the movie is the weakest. And it all starts with a plan to lure Max out by having Sam fake a flight out of town to attend his disbarment meeting. And how does Kersek set up a security system for the Bowdens? With fishing line and a teddy bear. What kind of witchcraft is that, Scorsese?

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Froemming: It’s classic Kersek. To quote MST3K, even his name says “Is that a beer?” Having Kersek in the house is almost as bad as having Max. Kersek is a drunk who mixes his cocktails with pepto and is packing heat. A dangerous combination of things that could potentially go wrong in that scenario alone. And yes, fishing line and a teddy bear is his burglar alarm. At this point, I needed pepto for my raging ulcer.

Brown: But like any good horror movie, the terror doesn’t need to break in because it’s already in the house. Nice little homage to “Psycho” here where Max kills the maid (off-screen) before dressing up as the maid and using Kersek’s trap against him to shoot and kill the detective.

All hell has broken loose, the Bowdens don’t feel safe and for some reason, Scorsese has these weird-colored skies in the exterior shots of the family’s house. So what do they do? They go to their house boat on Cape Fear. But Max is hot on their trail. Or, in probably the most remembered scene in this movie, is on their chassis as he hides underneath the car during the entire trip to Cape Fear.

Froemming: Instead of going to the police station after Max has killed two people, yeah, sure, take a trip to the house boat. And how the hell did they not notice an extra 200 pounds on the bottom of their vehicle. I notice the extra weight in my car when I move stuff. Ugh.

Brown: Sam does call the cops and say that yes, it raises suspicion that the family would book it out of town after two people were killed in the house. But, his family’s safety is more important to him. That’s reasonable. As for the car, the only thing I could say is if you’re in a hurry to leave your house, I don’t think you’re too worried about how the car feels unless you think there’s a flat tire.

Froemming: Well, then Sam is an idiot. His family would be safer with the police than on a creepy boat on a river at night. Just because the character points out the terrible plot hole in the film doesn’t absolve that choice from being terrible. And Max has become a slasher film villain. Dressing up like the maid earlier was just god awful and poor writing. This final act is so bad, it destroyed what I had enjoyed in the first 2/3rds of this film. I heard the chich, chich, chich, chah, chah, chahs from “Friday the 13th” in my head during that boat scene. It’s terrible.

Brown: At least the movie addressed a potential plot hole with the phone call, so I’ll give it credit for that.

For the sake of moving things along, this is where things get a little too bonkers for me: Cady cuts the anchor loose from the boat and they start drifting down river. When Sam goes to check on it, Max attacks (by lifting him with one hand in the pouring rain to the top of the boat) and ties him up, leaving the Bowden women vulnerable against Max. He decides he’s going to rape both women one at a time, but they won’t go down without a fight. At one point, Danny throws a pot of hot water from the stove onto Max with nothing to show for it. Turns out, Max is impervious to heat, going so far as to have a hot flare melt in his hand. That was the biggest “What the hell?!” moment for me.

Froemming: Max Cady has become both Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees in this final part of the film. I couldn’t take it seriously. I actually laughed when Max put the old WWE Sleeper Hold on Sam, and it works.

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Brown: Whoa, dude. If a sleeper hold is good enough for Rowdy Roddy Piper and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, it’s good enough for Max Cady.

Eventually, fire becomes too much for Max when, as he lights his cigar, Danny sprays lighter fluid in his face and he starts burning alive. And man, that effect does not hold up. I don’t even think it held up in the 90s. But it appears that Max has been thwarted… until he grabs the loose anchor rope and gets back on the boat to hold the family hostage and have a mock trial to get Sam to finally admit he screwed Max over. For some reason in this scene, De Niro is doing some bizarre fourth-wall breaking here that threw me off.

All the while, whatever river they are on has raging winds and swells. I really don’t think a river is capable of that. Rapids, yes, but this was like being in “The Perfect Storm.”

Froemming: I actually wrote down it was like “The Perfect Storm” in my notes. And that mock trial…whatever. But through the power of weather, Sam is able to get the upperhand on Max, and he cuffs him to the sinking ship. But not even that can stop Max Cady, because he seems to have that seizure power of Hulk Hogan’s that makes him invincible. By this time, I had really no care in the world how this ended, I just wanted it to end.

Brown: Well, it does soon after when Sam and Max (not to be confused with the 90s PC games) continue to fight on shore before the tide carries Max away, still handcuffed to a piece of the boat. Then as he’s sinking, Cady gets his last off-putting scene by speaking in tongues as water goes over his head. I think he was doing the “I’m not your friend, buddy” dialogue from “South Park.”

And symbolism! With Cady finally gone, Sam washes Max’s blood off his hands and reunites with his family.

… And because Froemming is over this, let’s attach ourselves to the chassis and ride off to our recommendations.

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: I was sufficiently creeped out by this movie. If you’re looking for a thriller that can make you all sorts of uncomfortable, then I would absolutely recommend this. Yes, the ending is weak, but this movie was outstanding for the first 100 minutes to the point where I can forgive the disjointed climax. De Niro is downright horrifying and Nolte does a great job portraying a man who’s losing it as his life is being ruined around him. Max Cady didn’t hurt Nick Nolte as much as a bad mugshot did, though.

Froemming: So much promise, such a solid first 2/3rds of a film, only to be sullied by a jaw-dropping horrible final third. I say check it out, because De Niro gives an amazing performance, but be prepared for an ending that may leave you frustrated and angry.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

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