Cape Fear (1991)
James R. Webb, Wesley Strick
Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis
Budget $35M Box Office $182.3M
IMDb 7.3/10 Rotten Tomatoes 75% Metacritic 73/100
This was a movie my Dad introduced me to. We both always had a huge respect for Robert De Niro. I just happened to catch this flick on TV today while I was flipping through channels, so I decided to sit back, watch and reminisce about times spent long ago with my father. I think this may have been the film that convinced me I didn’t want to be a defense attorney.
This is a true psychological thriller. It’s a story about a guy named Max Cady (De Niro) who was sent to prison for 14 years after pleading to battery. He was charged with rape and other included offenses which made it a capital case. By taking the plea, Max had a chance at seeing life outside prison walls someday. He brutalized his victim so badly that she barely survived. His defense lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) not only “knew” his client was guilty as hell but, Max had even confessed to Sam that he had gotten away with two other attacks. So, Sam buried some evidence in the case. It was the prior sexual history of the victim. (Remember, this was in the 90s, when rape victims did not have the kind of protection and shield laws we have for them now.) “Apparently”, (and I say that with so much sarcasm it gushes), this report showed that the victim was “promiscuous” and had had “at least three lovers in one month”. (Insert HUGE eye roll here and TOTALLY moving on because NONE of that has any bearing at all on whether or not someone is attacked.) Sam never turned this over to the prosecution and no one else was aware of it either, especially his client. That report could have gotten Max a lighter sentence OR even acquitted completely. Instead, Cady took the plea deal, was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years.
Now, once incarcerated, people do a lot of things to pass their time. Some form criminal enterprises inside. Some inmates sit in their cells as much as possible, trying to cope with depression or worse. Some just want to do their bid and get it over with, get out and move on. Some exercise. Some read. Others work jobs or get educations, degrees even. Some find religion. And yet some spend the vast majority of their time in the prison law library studying, reading up on anything and everything to do with their case. This last one is an interesting coping tactic because once they do this they are privy to certain, if not all, information pertaining to their case from both the state prosecutors and his defense attorneys (not to mention any independent experts and witnesses that may have been consulted during the course of the investigation and/or trial).
Out of all those options, Max Cady chose to live in a world of his own, in his 8ft by 9ft cell, expressing himself, his frustration, his vengeance and his religion through tattoos all over his body, by working out physically and yes, living in the law library.
For Sam, during these 14 years, he and his family move on with their lives and are doing fairly well. It’s obvious there has been some marital discourse but hey, what serious relationship doesn’t have issues now and then? Sam’s daughter, Dani (Danielle) is now 15 and oh so typical for that age and his wife, Leigh, is in advertising it seems. But, it’s when Max Cady gets released after serving his sentence that things really start to heat up and get troubling.
While Sam was out living his life, Max, on the other hand, feels like he was unfairly convicted as he strongly contends that the prior sexually history of his victim would have exonerated him. He has had fourteen years to think about how Sam buried that report. Fourteen years to think about how his life was snatched away from him. Of how he was caged and treated like an animal. How he lost his wife. His daughter. His respect. His dignity. How he had no other choice but to think and work out and desecrate his body with prison tattoos, waiting for the day his release would come and he could go pay a visit to his good old buddy Sam Bowden, and say “Hello.”
So, here we are. Fourteen years later and Max is out. And wouldn’t you know it, he just so happens to find cozy happiness in starting his life anew right in the same town where Sam and his family live. And just as luck would have it, why, Sam and Max start bumping into one another. Now, we all know that Max is doing this on purpose but see, the thing is, he learned a lot in prison. Fourteen years of studying is a lot longer than most lawyers do. Granted, Max had to first learn how to read, but he had nothing but time…and time…and time. And unlike out here in the real world, he didn’t have to necessarily go through all the hoops to get to the law library like a regular lawyer did. I mean, once Max learned how to read to that level the man could have spent all his time studying the law…now how many years do you think that was? Ten? Twelve? Law school is three. See where I’m going with this. Max has had the lengthy opportunity to learn and overlearn every loophole and misgiving in the entire system AND how to LEGALLY exploit it.
It’s like when a stalker knows that the police can’t doing anything to them for following their victim in a public place even with a restraining order in place as long as they stay the allotted number of feet away. Well see, while that seems obvious to everyone now reading it, most people given a restraining order tend to just stay away. A stalker will go out with a tape measure and measure that shit so they can still see their victim and torment them BUT not get arrested. And they won’t just do it at one location, they will do it at many locations. Plus, it gives them an even greater feeling of control and power over their target. Just one example for you.
Okay, so Max is out and harassing Sam and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. What’s worse is that Max, because of all his legal knowledge, fancies himself a legal professional on par with Sam but Sam…Sam keeps talking to him and treating him like a criminal, like a convict. Max gets all holy on Sam, quoting scripture from the Bible repeatedly throughout the movie, lecturing him about the meaning of commitment and what his fourteen years would be worth.
Then it gets really creepy. Dude starts going to Sam’s house. He goes after the family dog, the wife and even the daughter at her school. Max is so skilled he is completely wreaking havoc on Sam, his nerves, his job and his family. I mean, it gets to the point where Sam feels he needs to take his family and flee on their little houseboat until the police can (or will) help them.
Good plan. It’s out in the middle of a lake, no one will know where they are…good plan.
Except Cady is riding with them all the way to the dock tied to the undercarriage of their SUV.
Once they (and Cady) get on the boat and get settled a storm hits. This is when Cady makes his move. Now, he’s gonna have his REAL day in court. HIS way. He handcuffs Sam to a pole in the galley and has Leigh and Dani act as the jury (it’s not like they really have a purpose there, he is just acting out some sick psycho fantasy here, later he looks at the ceiling and talks to the judge that isn’t there during the hearing). He proceeds to ask Sam about the buried report and eventually Sam admits it, citing Max as a predator and a menace and that he deserved to go to prison. Unfortunately, my good friends, this is not how our system actually works. A lawyer shall zealously defend his client to the very best of his ability within the bounds of the law. That’s the defendant’s right and something very similar to that statement is in the oath a lawyer repeats when they are sworn into the ABA. Frankly, although it may make stomachs turn, Sam didn’t do that. And now he and his family are going to die because of it. Or are they???
Not quite. Well, not in the literal sense anyways. However, what does happen that night on the water forever changes all of them. Individually and as a family. It probably changes Sam as a lawyer too. Going through something like that, nothing is ever the same.
So, this is a remake of the original 1962 film which I have to admit I have not seen. So I can’t compare or comment on the original at all.
However, this version is fantastic. De Niro really went “all in” on this part as he went to a dentist and paid $5,000 to have them damage and mess up his teeth (his real, own teeth!) just so he could better look the part of Cady and then after filming, he went back to the dentist and paid $20,000 to get the work all reversed and his teeth fixed. OUCH! Talk about commitment!!!!
Anyways, at the beginning of this I said this was probably the movie that made me decide not to be a defense lawyer. That could very well be true. I mean, if you are a prosecutor, inevitably you’re going to put an innocent person away for something they didn’t do. And if you are a defense attorney, you are going to get people off for things they definitely did, bad things. Now, it’s gonna be really easy to be a prosecutor and be righteous and moral but, to be a defense attorney, especially a criminal defense attorney, and still strut around preaching morality and righteousness…that’s tough. More often than not, what you hear the most from criminal defense attorneys is, eh um, “Everyone is entitled to a defense.” That’s a very valid, reasonable and true justification under the law and the constitution. However, what they tend to neglect to mention is that there is far more money in private defense practice than in civil service and while the clients are sketchier, the perks are better. Doesn’t make them bad people and without defense lawyers, our system wouldn’t move. But public defenders don’t necessarily seem to feel the same way about defense law when it becomes their turn to take a week out of their private civil law practice to do so, giving up their private rates for civil rates. Big pay cut.
And yet, either way, if your client happens to feel you didn’t do your job, they could blame you for their sentence (not the fact they committed a crime, it happens more than you think) and then all of a sudden it’s your fault they went to prison and now they want you dead or worse. (Yes, there’s worse than just getting shot dead, think people, think.)
So, there went law school. And my Dad had gone to law school after college and the Army (and Vietnam) so at one point I thought “Yes! This is totally in the blood!” but, then he told me he realized it wasn’t for him either and decided to become a cop instead. And again I was like “Yes, I see this too is in the blood.” Obviously, though we are a family of debaters, becoming lawyers wasn’t our thing.
Now, all through the film Max perceives himself to be the victim here. The victim of the system. The victim of the devious defense lawyer with a conscience. What Max fails to realize is that had he not broken the law to begin with, had he not raped and beaten that young lady, he wouldn’t have been arrested. Not having been arrested, he wouldn’t have been charged and not having been charged he wouldn’t have been arraigned. Therefore, he wouldn’t have needed a lawyer because he wouldn’t have been going to trial. But he did do all that and he got Sam and poor old Sam had a conscience because, well, hell, he still believes in right and wrong and not just the face on the bill you hand him or the number of zeroes on the check.
As the viewers, we see the victim (or victims) to be Sam and his family. But Sam also did something wrong. And while we want to morally support him (and believe me, rightfully so), legally and constitutionally, which is a big part of what this country is built on, he violated his client’s rights. That’s something that demands sanction from the ABA, if not disbarment. Just because you know your client is guilty doesn’t mean you can tank his case. And you don’t get to choose how much effort you put into a defense on how well you like your client or how much you believe their version of the events or how horrible of a criminal record they have. One would think a budding lawyer would have thought of that at some point between first year law school and their swearing in.
So, who IS the victim? (Other than the poor young woman who got brutally assaulted which, that assault we don’t see but, a similar one we get a glimpse of later in the film.)
Well, in the legal and clinical arena, when looking to assign responsibility, accountability and outright blame for an event there is a very simple way they look at it. Some refer to it as “the But/For Test” but it basically boils down to this:
In every event, there is a cause and a reaction. (One of Newton’s Laws, yes?) So, with any event, what they will do is they will look back at the initiating action and see if the final result would still happen, had that initial action NOT presented itself. If the answer is no, then they move to the next. If the answer is yes, then well, you can start with the blame-game and move on from there.
So, in the instance of this movie, BUT FOR Max committing his crime, Sam would never have had to defend him. Thus, he wouldn’t have felt the need to bury that evidence. However, you could then turn right around and say, BUT FOR Sam hiding that evidence, Max wouldn’t be on his ass. However, that doesn’t quite fit the full criteria because Max did something causing Sam to get involved first, not the other way around. So the burden of his misery still rests on Max’s own shoulders, albeit two very badly prison tattooed shoulders. (Prison ink rarely looks good man, very rarely. You know they melt checkers and stuff for that ink, right? Yeah, they get creative.)
Still, the idea that a con fresh out of the federal pen is so pissed at you, and has been for fourteen years, that he comes after you with such vengeance and such fury that nothing short of an act of intervention from God himself will stop him? That’s pretty wild. I mean, what that must be like to sit in prison for that many years and burn and fume and rage over the same person day in and day out, day in, day out, day in, day out. Forever reminding yourself that THEY are why you are there. Man, talk about torturing yourself mentally. Or, I guess if you are a psychopath, more like preparing yourself mentally. I withdraw my previous comment, taking into consideration the character I am talking about.
I am curious about the original although, I don’t see that it could be near as impactful as this version, especially being from the 60s. Things were just so different in the industry at that time and filmmakers were really only just beginning to branch out. I’ll have to check it out and see. This one though, definitely a good one.
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