Film & Video: December 1991


Cape Fear

Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller, in which he directs Robert De Niro as a vengeful ex-convict, is full of allegory and metaphor, presenting contemporary problems in the stark, intimate reality of individual experience. Max Cady (De Niro) was imprisoned for fourteen years for rape and battery, largely due to the actions of Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), his public defender and his own illiteracy.

As the film opens, the heavily tattooed Cady informs Sam that he’s learned to read in prison, and that Sam’s going to “learn about loss.” He begins to harass the Bowden family, creating tension and hear, prompting Sam to visit the local sheriff (Gregory Peck), who speaks of the system’s numerous avenues for “leaning on undesirables.”

Cady then seduces and batters a young clerk who works with and is trying to initiate a romance with Sam. She knows that if she testifies, then she will be on trial, crucified in cross examination about her socio-sexual conduct and her relationship with Sam.

To further put the screws to Sam, Cady goes after his 15 year old daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), with whom he perceives a connection. While smoking a joint with her, he draws a fundamental distinction between himself and her father, pointing out that she doesn’t judge him for smoking pot, but her parents got very angry with her for doing it (even though Sam appears to disagree with marijuana prohibition). “They’re punishing you for a crime that isn’t even a crime,” Max tells her, because, “They don’t want you to achieve adulthood.” Max explains that they punished her for their sins and skillfully plays on Dan’s desire for freedom, further driving a wedge into their parent / child relationship by seducing her in a kind of psychological statutory rape.

De Niro’s character evolved in prison to an ultra-violent, highly intelligent, Christian zealot, well versed in criminal law and existential thought, whose education is as dangerous as his physical strength, both of which he honed during his 14 year stretch. His mission: “to become more-than-human.”

With examples like the irrational persecution of marijuana smokers, the criminal-justice system is portrayed as an inadequate instrument of crime deterrence. Considering the clumsiness, contradiction and favoritism of the judiciary bureaucracy and the hellish, inhumane condition of prison life, we can see why Max Cady was no “rehabilitated.” The lack of separation between Church and State is also alluded to.

Unable to quell Cady legally, Same hires a though private investigator (Joe Don Baker), who understands the “pathetic” nature of the criminal-justice system. But, as Cady threatens to hurt the Bowden family “in the worst way,” Sam goes against his own ethics, with vigilante justice, only to have his plans backfire. Cady proclaims, “I can out-learn you, I can out-read you, I can out-think you, and I can out-philosophize you. And, I’m gonna outlast you.”

When Max and the Bowden’s finally arrive at Cape Fear is when the real fun begins.

Like all of Martin Scorsese’s films, Cape Fear contains messages of cultural significance, questioning our beliefs and priorities, by showing us what life is really like. Max Cady is a multi-faceted icon, at once epitomizing the egocentric, misogynistic, violent, white, Christian, male and the societal misfit, transformed under the authoritarianistic bigotry and repression to which he was subject.

All of the performances in Cape Fear are outstanding, and this is certainly a magnum opus for the Scorsese / De Niro team.

Be forewarned: Don’t get too caught up in the portrayal of our brutally violent society to miss the messages, so eloquently conveyed.


City Of Hope

John Sayles’ relatively short but productive movie career has spanned a vast array of topics from sports history (Eight Men Out) to quirky neo-science fiction (The Brother From Another Planet). With his latest work, City Of Hope, though, Sayles has created a masterpiece which may finally get him the attention he deserves, even if the movie-going masses remain ignorant.

City of Hope opens with a building construction site and a disenchanted worker, Nick (Vincent Spano). Seems his father (Tony Lo Bianco) is in charge of the project and got him the easy job. Nevertheless, Nick is bored and listless, preferring to blow money on sports betting, drugs and his loser friends.

But, although the focus of the movie remains primarily on Nick, a variety of other stories are explored a la some of TV’s most creative ensembles series like Hill Street Blues. Featured characters include an idealist African city councilman (Joe Morton), corrupt cops, decent cops, self-interested citizens, dirty politicians, and most notably, two young kids who go from victims of police to prosecutors as they beat up an innocent college “urban relations” professor then make up an intricate tale where in the professor attempted to molest them, all done in order to protect themselves.

But there is far more to this urban tale than is possible to describe adequately in review. Indeed, the scope of the story, set in the fictional New Jersey city of Hudson, reminds one of some of the more ambitious city dramas of the 50’s, updated for 90’s sensibilities and with more attention paid to racial tension and union graft.

Simplistic synopsis may make the film sound boring and preachy, but the experience is anything but. The skill with which the narrative weaves is so flawless, that the viewer is carried along and transported. Also, the characters and their stories are so engaging and well-realized that detachment is impossible.

In addition, the acting is top-notch. Spano, Lo Bianco, and Moron are all outstanding. But, the supporting cast is also flawless with Sayles’ regulars Kevin Tighe and Michael A. Mantel appearing and David Strathairn playing an unusual performance as a homeless, insane man who is at once comic and tragic.

But the movie and its magic is primarily to the credit of writer-director-producer-editor Sayles. From the opening credits, which roll by like a freight-train, starting and stopping to the closing scene of hopelessness, the production is first-class. In pursuing his most mature work yet, Sayles allows the story to move at its own pace, akin to a modern-day Dickensian tale. The camera work, the sound, the music, etc., all provide a power and realism rarely achieved in movies. The topping to all this is Sayles’ confidence, which allows him to cast himself as the sinister garage owner-arranger Carl. Unsurprisingly, Sayles even succeeds here.

The conclusion to the movie is at once promising and downbeat, with the hope of a change in city politics but personal tragedy. Both of Salt Lake’s mayoral candidates should have been forced to view this film in order to see the dirty dealings of city politics exposed, as should those few who actually voted. The movie is rewarding personally and philosophically.

Although City Of Hope will undoubtedly be ignored come Oscar time and financial reward will probably be lame, Sayles and his accomplices in the effort deserve hearty praise. Filmgoers deserving of a memorable movie experience deserve City Of Hope


For more from the SLUG Archives:

Conquering The Local Club Circuit With House of Cards

Featured Band November 1991: Reality