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The Antagonists of CAPE FEAR: An Analysis

Cape Fear is one of the most unexpected and un-traditional Martin Scorsese films the great director has in his filmography. The 1991 American psychological thriller film is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name and stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Joe Don Baker, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck.

Cape Fear follows the story of Max Cady (De Niro), a convicted rapist who is released from prison after serving a fourteen-year sentence. Now free, Cady stalks the lawyer's family (Nolte), who initially defended him. As odd and insane as Cape Fear is, the film makes for a fascinating discussion to analyze the film's antagonists.

Still from 'Cape Fear'. Photo credit: The Cinemaholic

Max Cady

As stated, Cady is an ex-convict who returns following a lengthy prison sentence to get back at Sam Bowden, the lawyer who helped put him in prison, and his loved ones. Like so many great psychological thrillers, the main character is the villain and antagonist of the film, as opposed to flipping it around.

We know that Cady is a bad guy, being sentenced to prison for rape and hinting that he killed his wife after getting out. Still, we comprehend Cady’s motives since he blames Bowden for his conviction. It’s not that Cady understands that his wrongdoings are why he’s in prison. Instead, he strictly shifts the blame to someone else.

Cady is a character with a spiritual compass taking a distinct fascination with the Bible on a deeper meaning. He utilizes his religious knowledge to declare himself a godly man, self-giving his evil actions a pass. Throughout this story, Cady does nothing redeemable, yet we’re invested in his character to see the interaction between him and Bowden.


Though it’s pronounced that Cady is the antagonist over Bowden, Cady’s claims of Sam being in the wrong aren’t invalid. Sam didn't protect Cady during the trial, which the law requests, as evident as Cady being in the wrong.

Even though Cady is a sentenced rapist and all-around creep, he's ethically right about Sam not being a morally good person. Sam knows it, with the audience consistently aware of Sam’s guilt. His morals become increasingly more compromised as he attempts to get Cady far from his loved ones.

Through this, Cady makes his messaging very clear. Although Sam is a lawyer and not a crook like him, that doesn't make him a decent man. It's a bizarre mystery with the decent man in Sam being filled with guilt while the evil one is filled with anger and retribution, the opposite of what you’d expect.


Cape Fear, at its base, is a revenge story told through the lens of the antagonist. It’s an important reminder for the audience that a revenge story doesn’t need to be based around a character that we could root for. Instead, it takes the opposite approach with Cady.

We understand that Cady is an awful human being, yet we’re invested in his interaction with the Bowdens and his revenge plot. It makes for a fascinating discussion on the moral compass of the audience. How can we justify our excitement for Cady’s plan when he’s such a deranged individual? It comes down to the writing of Wesley Strick and Scorsese’s directing.

Good and Evil / Guilt and Wronged

At the core of Cape Fear is one of Scorsese's most analyzed topics in Guilt. More specifically, good and evil are twisted into guilt and wronged. Though Sam is nowhere near as morally corrupt as Cady, he’s not on the complete good side. Even thinking what Sam did to guarantee Cady’s sentence was morally okay, there still comes the question of Sam’s frequent infidelities.

It’s an exciting concept of having the antagonist be the main character while questioning the protagonist's morality. It goes back to the importance of having multiple layers to your characters. Though Cady isn’t too deep of an antagonist, the protagonist in Sam has a deeper level to him that benefits the script.

Great Performance

Cape Fear’s most significant strength with its antagonist comes down to having Robert De Niro portray the character. De Niro’s performance is compelling, regardless of whether it's somewhat disconcerting how over the top De Niro goes. He lays the accent on thick and is extremely menacing. Does it go over-the-top a lot? Sure, but that adds to the charm of the script and story.

The Strange Paradox of a Lawyer and Convict

Usually, when we examine a story of a Lawyer screwing over his client, the character who gets screwed over tends not to be a morally corrupt individual. It’s typically a character who was framed at the wrong moment at the wrong time, or was wrongfully accused of no real reason.

Cape Fear is the complete opposite of this, where Cady is rightfully sentenced to prison, and we’re not upset with Sam for burying evidence to guarantee Cady’s sentence. It’s a strange demonstration of the paradox between a lawyer and a convict. There aren’t many stories that present this manner in this way.


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