Sam Bowden is a former Atlanta public defender who seeks to start a life in corporate law for him and his family in the quiet resort town of New Essex, North Carolina. Max Cady is a client Sam defended 14 years prior to the setting of the movie.
Cady, who was being tried for the rape and battery of a 16-year-old girl, was illiterate at the time of the trial and was unable to read a report Sam kept hidden from him and the court that could have lightened his sentence or acquitted him. The report stated that the victim was promiscuous, a decisive fact in a rape case because the intercourse must have been non-consensual for a conviction to occur.
Now a well-read, recently-released ex-convict, Cady stalks Bowden and plans to seek vengeance for his imprisonment. The movie's climax has the two men engaging in a showdown during a severe thunderstorm on Cape Fear.