ape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original, is often noted for its aggression, violence, and gore. The original plays as a suburban horror story where a good man, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), is persecuted by a mad rapist, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum).
Scorsese, however, rejects this simple construct from his film’s first frame. We witness the lapping waters of Cape Fear as the soft voice of Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis) lilts on about the river. Notably, Dani’s voiceover brackets the film. She opens the film expounding about the river, where the final conflict will unravel, and closes the film trying—unsuccessfully—to convince the audience it will all be okay now that Cady (Robert De Niro) is dead. This book-ended frame narration makes the story Dani’s, not Sam’s; as such it is not a story of man versus man. It is a fantasy of revenge.
When Dani is sitting in the Bowden house with her father (Nick Nolte) at the piano, she tells him that for a class assignment she is to write a “reminiscence,” a story in flashback. Cape Fear is that story.
Her father apathetically asks what she will write about, to which she responds, “The houseboat.” At the mention of the houseboat, the piano’s key ominously goes dead. This is the moment Sam notices the missing piano wire. He assumes Cady has gotten into the Bowden house and will hurt someone with the wire. Sam’s half-right; Cady is already inside, as Dani.
The Bowdens’ house is presented as being as emotionally murky and treacherous as Cape Fear. Sam is having an affair, even though past affairs drove his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) into a deep and potentially suicidal depression. Sam also admits to having betrayed Max Cady by suppressing evidence that could have lessened his sentence. So he has betrayed his wife and his client, but when Dani is caught smoking pot the fissures begin to deepen and reveal a darker secret.
Sam huffs that smoking pot is not a crime in many cultures, to which his wife coos that the same could be said for incest. The theme is made more explicit as Sam Bowden begins to lash out at Dani’s burgeoning sexuality, screaming at her for wearing only a t-shirt and panties while alone in her bedroom. Incest, then, is the real skeleton in the Bowdens’ closet. Dani, too has been betrayed by her father, and foils of Dani appear in the film to likewise be betrayed and ultimately strike back.
The most immediate foil to Dani is her father’s would-be mistress, Lori (Illeana Douglas). Lori, a quirky looking brunette with a narrow bumpy nose like Dani’s also dresses and acts similarly to the young girl. She wears white cotton off-the-shoulder tops and is conspicuously immature for her age, squealing, “So sue me!” as a sign of flirtation. Notably, it is when Sam stands Lori up that she meets Cady. As such, Sam’s failure to meet her becomes a failure to protect her since Cady ultimately brutalizes and rapes her. Sam fails her after fucking her.
It is for these offenses that Dani needs revenge. She needs a monster to purge the sins of her father. She needs Cady. There is no evidence presented that Cady actually did get into the Bowden house until the murders. And the parents ignore Dani. They never ask her if she took the piano wire, nor do they ask her about the missing dog. Their neglect of Dani has created Cady and continued neglect allows him to play.
Cady, the polar opposite of Dani’s father, is a vulgar man with a harsh Southern accent who wears loud shirts and gnaws on an obscenely large cigar. His tattoos declare danger, and his cigar is a bombastic alarm of his sexual prowess. He represents a menacing masculinity along with Sam, for their only common thread is a penchant for rape. He is the personification of Dani’s demand for vengeance toward her father.
We watch as Cady is inextricably shaped by Dani and her sexuality. His menace in the film evolves in parallel with Dani’s development. She flirts and reads sexual books and he becomes more and more a monster, killing the dog, a detective, and then the maid. Even her experience shapes Cady. On MTV, Dani watches a man in grotesque drag shoplift. Later, in grotesque drag—the clothes of the murdered maid—Cady kills the detective with the piano wire that was missing from the ominous piano key.
Cady goes too far when he kills the Bowdens’ maid, someone for whom Dani mourns. He is now out of control, and this makes space for Sam to step up and redeem himself. It provides him a chance to save his family, which he does after a brutal fight sequence and a gruesome mock trial where Cady knowingly demands that Dani be the jury.
In the end of Dani’s story, her father saves her and is redeemed—except it’s only a story.
Dani’s cryptic attempt at a happy-ending voiceover lulls the superficial. “We never spoke about what happened, at least not to each other. . . . I hardly dream about him anymore. . . . If you hang onto the past, you die a little every day. And for myself, I’d rather live.” But her haunted voice undermines these vague words, begging us to consider their alternate meanings. Each statement can be regarded in two realms: the fantasy realm of Max Cady, and the real world where Sam Bowden molested his child.
What happened that the Bowdens’ never speak about to each other? Cady’s attack or the incestuous rape? Does Dani dream of Cady or her father? Who haunts her or allows her to sleep? What past is she trying to let go? Cady’s abuse or her father’s? Dani never answers these questions directly, but the stark images that accompany her voiceover do. A long shot of Dani holding her trembling mother, as she herself shivers, pushes in tighter and tighter, eventually confining her to an extreme closeup of one eye. Her eye is wide and wretched with fear as the image flashes to a negative of itself. The ominous music that is Cape Fear’s infamous theme builds as the eye pulses to red and the image freezes.
Dani is trapped in this confining frame of terror. She is dying, and there is no Max Cady to save her.