The Simple Art of Vengeance

As the plot proceeds, though, it has trouble accelerating. Weighed down by the intensity of the characters and their murky moral context, it protracts the issue of Bowden's paranoia, and belabors the fact that the once-genteel lawyer is beginning to metamorphose into a version of his nemesis. Much more convincing is the investigation of sexual relationships. The Thompson film was overt in its depiction of the tension between Bowden's wife and Cady - when Mitchum terrorized the family, Polly Bergen's screams of fright sounded uncomfortably like orgasmic moans. Scorsese wisely tones this bad boy/lubricious girl content down a notch where Lange's Leigh is concerned, but he jacks it through the ceiling for Dani. Cady's greatest threat to Sam Bowden lies in his ability to break the family chain, and he picks on the weak link, impersonating Dani's summer-school drama teacher, meeting the girl in an empty theater in the school basement, and gently seducing her. As he strokes her hair, as he caresses her face, as he slips his thumb in and out of her mouth, his thumbnail knocking against her retainer, Cady's ruthlessness feeds off of Dani's naivete. There hasn't been sexual sadism this chilling and compelling since Humbert Humbert set upon Lolita.

Unfortunately Scorsese can't maintain this psychological intensity, and the final third of the film devolves into a grueling version of Deliverance. Whereas Thompson's film summarized the wrestling-with-the-doppelganger theme with a few compact scenes, Scorsese draws it out interminably. Cady and the Bowdens slug it out on a storm-tossed houseboat on the raging Cape Fear River for what seems like hours. Perhaps this is intentional - that the descent into Hell should be raw, painful, and without much entertainment value - but the action scenes seem uncharacteristically sluggish. At the same time, Elmer Bernstein's score begins to plod, and some of the plotting conceits (such as Cady strapping himself to the underside of the Bowdens' Wagoneer) are merely silly. And when the movie finally regains its footing - with a dizzying closing sequence that rips away the levels of deceit and exposes Cady's madness in glorious horror - its restored vigor only serves as a reminder of how welcome some liberal editing would have been.

Cape Fear isn't top-notch Scorsese. The kinetic thrill of his strongest works is absent, and perhaps any film that attempted such an elaborate expansion of a simple story of revenge was doomed to fall short of expectations. But that's the way it is with boxing. No one can land every punch; the best you can hope is that the ones that find their mark pack a king-size wallop.

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Wesley Strick; with Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, Illeana Douglas, Fred Dalton Thompson, Edgar Allan Poe IV, and Paul Nagle, Jr.


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