595. Preponderance of the small (XII)
Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) tells a tale in which Sam Bowden, a Southern lawyer, finds himself pursued by a former client, Max Cady (De Niro), with savage intent. The context is that Bowden, as Cady’s defence attorney, found out through an investigative report that a woman Cady raped had a promiscuous record. However, Bowden took it upon himself to suppress this report because he thought his client’s crimes—his history of similar crimes—were so bad that he needed to be put away; if the report had been included Cady might have done four years—instead he received a sentence in the teens. When he gets out, Cady wants retribution against the man who took the law into his own hands.
The film opens with a speech by Bowden’s daughter where she relates how her life on Cape Fear was dreamy until reality intruded. Scorsese then cuts to Cady in his cell: over an operatic track we see little pictures that constitute Cady’s pantheon—Nietzsche, Lee, Patton, Stalin, and a woman pierced with arrows. Below the little shrine we see dusty volumes. Then we see Cady, his well-developed body as he pumps on parallel bars—the huge cross tattoo on his back, complete with the scales of justice. Cady is reality.
This scene establishes Cady as a man who has undergone gnosis in prison. As he later tells Bowden, he taught himself to read in prison—taught himself the law (temporal and spiritual), and that is how he discovered the report Bowden suppressed. Cady’s devotion to Nietzsche—to the body, to the martial Lee, to the spirit of the Bible—indicates that he has become a whole man. He has come to teach Bowden a lesson about hypocrisy—a condition opposed equally by Christ and Nietzsche. Cady is a bad man; and yet Bowden was obliged—swore an oath—as a defence attorney to give Cady the best representation available, no matter what he personally thought about his client. Bowden broke the law’s spirit, and so Cady comes for him like an avenging angel.
As Cady torments Bowden and his family—he kills their dog and seduces Bowden’s teenage daughter—he quotes the Inferno, he quotes the gnostic Selatius, and he offers Cady’s daughter works by Henry Miller (exoterically creepy sexual seduction, esoterically Rosicrucian awakening). Cady says, “Every man has to go through Hell to reach paradise,” again—Dante, Nietzsche, Jung. At one point, Cady threatens to “chop you into 42 pieces”—this is a reference to the 42 body parts Osiris was chopped into in old Egypt, and the 42 questions Ma’at would ask you after death to test your suitability for paradise. The implication is that although he superficially “torments” Bowden, the real mission Cady undertakes is to awaken him from his hypocritical slumber.
Bowden pursues a sort-of-almost affair with a girl he plays squash with—Cady tracks her down, seduces her, and rapes her. Again, he is after Bowden’s hypocrisy: Bowden is too cowardly even to have an affair—to enter Hell—he just plays around on the edge, technically clean yet breaking the spirit of marriage (“I never touched her, honey.”). Cady comes to highlight the many hypocrisies in Bowden’s life—after all, his wife is an advertisement executive; a fake job.
The problem with the film is that Bowden never wakes up. Cady is killed and we are left to think the “bad man” got what he deserved; the real film would have had Bowden awaken after Cady guided him through Hell. Instead, we hear in the final narration “we never spoke of it again”—the Bowdens went back to smug hypocrisy despite Cady’s valiant attempt to save their souls. Perhaps Hollywood could not stand a film that real, a film that acknowledges that Cady is the hero. The fault is visible in that first scene: Stalin does not belong in Cady’s pantheon, he was not an awakened man—he was a hypocrite; and this is why Cape Fear ultimately fails.