A violent criminal, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), is released from prison after 14 years. Cady hunts down his former defence attorney (Nick Nolte) and starts to terrorize his family (Jessica Lange and Juliet Lewis), convinced crucial evidence was omitted from his case that may have kept him from serving time.
This is Scorsese’s attempt at a modern Hitchcock film and the references to the master of suspense run thick and fast. From the Bernard Hermann score, the broken letters in the opening titles to the way it’s filmed and its psychological thriller content, Scorsese makes his intentions clear. The problem is that you need more than the music and visual style of a great director to make a great film, which Cape Fear isn’t.
The plot is far too simplistic and is desperately in need of a twist or two to spice things up. It plods towards a conclusion in an unnecessarily drawn out way, as Cady’s tormenting of the family increases with a tedious inevitability. There seems to be no reason for his slowly increasing the pressure on them other than for the purposes of the narrative, which is a big problem. This isn’t helped by the fact the Bowden family are not particularly interesting characters. De Niro is very good as Cady, giving a strong performance, but isn’t as scary as he needs to be, lacking the psychotic glint in his eyes possessed by the best movie psychopaths.
The Hitchcockian music is so iconic it can’t help but invoke memories of films like Psycho in a seasoned film watcher, which is problematic when Cape Fear is Psycho‘s inferior by quite some distance. True, Scorsese doesn’t use the stabbing shower music (like in Carrie), but it still feels like the music of a better director employed to try and raise the standards of a work that’s a very meagre homage.
Cape Fear doesn’t have the atmosphere it needs to be chilling or to get in your head. The straightforward plot feels like treading old ground, and the fear factor is never properly realised, resulting in a film less than the sum of its impressive parts.