Before anything else, Cape Fear is a film about justice. Or, more specifically, it is a film about the critical conflict between corporeal and spiritual justice. A remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s movie follows a family living in a peaceful town in North Carolina. A wrench is thrown into their quiet lives, however, when Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison after serving a substantial stint for assault. Max is hellbent on exacting revenge against the man who he believes put him there—lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte)—who happens to be our wholesome family’s patriarch.
Both films are riveting cat-and-mouse chases, infused with a healthy amount of psychological warfare. But where Scorsese’s version departs from the original is in its avid use of Christian symbolism—a theme which arises in the majority of his films. When we first meet Max, he is adorned with tattoos, a large amount of them relating to Christianity. He has a number of Bible quotes scrawled on his flesh, including a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (“My time is at hand”) and one from Romans (“Vengeance is mine”). And if that didn’t get the point across sufficiently, a bumper sticker on Max’s car reads: “You’re a VIP on Earth. I’m a VIP in heaven.”
Max believes that there has to be a justice system that transcends the courts that failed him. While in prison, he converted to Christianity, believing that, if there is a God, then he’ll do right by Max. But in seeking revenge himself, he ends up positioning himself as a holy figure, acting as though he is the only one suited to differentiate between right and wrong and justly deliver punishment. Max’s post-prison role begs the question: Is exacting justice yourself a Christian endeavor, or the opposite?
In 2 Corinthians, Paul the Apostle considers the question of crime and punishment on a spiritual level. “You yourselves [believers in the Corinth] are our letters,” he explains, “written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. / You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-4). Paul outlines a fixed separation between the physical and spiritual world where crime and punishment is concerned. This passage assumes that the word of God should be inherent in someone’s mind—that it is “written in our hearts”—and therefore, when applied to our Christian antagonist, it is not Max’s place to undertake what he believes to be Sam’s rightful punishment.
But he does anyway. He lurks around the Bowden household and intimidates Sam, and even goes as far as to kill the family dog. But Max’s tactics go beyond just surface-level scares. Max jumpstarts his master plan of punishment with Sam’s naïve teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). He invites her to her school’s theater under the pretense that he’s a teacher, then seduces her and poisons her against her father in a matter of minutes. In doing this, he successfully fractures the family that he is seeking retribution against: Sam is furious when he finds out about his daughter’s relationship with Max, while Danielle has already been cajoled into thinking that her father is a bad guy.
But where does this action and its consequences place Max within the biblical narrative he so often refers to? In attempting to liken himself to a biblical figure by performing acts of so-called justice, he instead invokes a number of parables that would, ultimately, characterize him as a moral failure.
Max’s incitement of familial conflict and violence recalls one of the first examples of sin: Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, in the Book of Genesis. This likeness places him in direct opposition to the saintly figure he strives to be. Not only that, but it places his bitter enemy, Sam, in an undeniably virtuous light. Another relevant example of biblical familial violence is Genesis’s story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, at God’s command. Instead of exacting a justice that he believes the manmade systems in place overlooked, Max sets into motion a cycle of sin, becoming a satanic figure as opposed to the saintlike character he set out to be.
Something important to note about the stories of Cain, Abel, and Abraham, are that they are all ultimately tests of faith. By terrorizing Sam’s family, Max puts Sam in a position to test his own faith and the strength of his family. Indeed, Max is clear in his intention to act as a Godlike figure. Earlier in the film, he implores Sam to read the Book of Job, in which “God took away everything he had. Even his children.”
But like Abraham, Sam ultimately passes the test of faith. What Max hopes would be his own story of redemption and justice becomes one that is more focused on the strength of the family unit and, ultimately, a father’s devotion. It’s Max’s attempts to undermine this strength that eventually leads him to his demise. In the film’s final act, Sam, his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and Danielle escape Max on their houseboat, which they ride up Cape Fear River. Max sneaks onto the boat, but Danielle outsmarts him by dousing him with lighter fluid as he lights a cigar. Engulfed in flames, Max jumps into the water, but then climbs back onboard, badly burned. Sam handcuffs him to the boat as it sinks in rapturous tides and Max slowly drowns.
In his death, not only is Max defeated and outwitted by those he ventures to take down, but his demise transforms him into a demonic figure. The fire in which Danielle shrouds him clearly evokes imagery of Hell. Not only is this ignition a symbol of his evil and its subsequent extinguishment, but it is also a death that was brought on precisely by the actions he thought would lead him to salvation. As he drowns, washed away in a seemingly biblical storm, Max starts speaking in tongues—a mode of speech famously indistinguishable from the language of the devil. Cape Fear is a story about justice—but not in the way Max sets out for it to be. It’s about the perils of false prophets, and the tests we are put through when we contradict the system of morals we set up for ourselves in a post-religious society.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.