The 1991 remake of 1962’s Cape Fear was director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into the world of the conventional thriller. That’s not to say Cape Fear is conventional, because it isn’t. The 1962 film starred Robert Mitchum as ex-con Max Cady, who is out to get revenge on Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man responsible for putting him in prison. Mitchum’s Cady was an unrepentant cold-hearted sociopath with a one track mind. Mitchum’s cool demeanor and menacing presence was truly chilling. Cady’s vengeance against the noble Bowden is a classic tale of good vs. evil. Scorsese’s take on the story is less black and white. The narrative is driven by moral ambiguity rather than the triumph of good over bad.
In the update Max Cady is played by Robert De Niro who physically transformed himself into the brawny ex-con he portrays. This Max Cady is also menacing and unrepentant, but instead of the cool demeanor portrayed by Mitchum, De Niro’s Cady is a sadistic madman intent on punishing Sam Bowden to the fullest extent of his power. In this version Sam Bowden was long ago Cady’s defense attorney. Cady is on trial for the brutal rape of a 16-year-old girl. Bowden commits an illegal act of his own when he suppresses evidence of the victim’s promiscuity. The evidence may or may not have exonerated Cady, but in Cady’s mind it is the reason he was convicted. Cady, who was illiterate at the time of the trial, spent his 14 years in prison learning to read and eventually studying law. When he figures out Bowden’s deception his only plan is revenge.
Bowden (Nick Nolte) is not the noble character of the original film. Not only are his professional standards questionable, but he is also a philanderer who is apathetic to his wife and teenage daughter’s emotional struggles. The family has moved to the small town of New Essex to start fresh after Bowden’s affairs. Bowden’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) keeps herself busy but is clearly unhappy with life. Their daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is teetering on the ledge between childhood and adulthood, and is fully aware of the discontent between her parents. Danielle is attending summer school due to being busted for having a joint in her locker. If it’s a warning sign her parents are unaware. They are only angry at her because parents are supposed to get mad about such things, but in reality they don’t seem to care all that much.