Raging Bull (1980) is a movie I’m very ambivalent about. There are great things about it and there are terrible things about it. The script by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader is great. The direction by Martin Scorsese is not great. Neither is the performance by Robert De Niro, although it is one of the most written-about in history. Raging Bull tells the story of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, and his tumultuous life outside of the ring. It has been said that Raging Bull is hardly a boxing film and there’s some truth to that. The subject is sexual frustration and Raging Bull pointedly explores the overlap between physical violence and impotence, using one man as the subject of its analysis. There is perhaps no film that better embodies the term ‘character study.’ Raging Bull is told essentially in the first person. The audience sees people the way Jake sees them, and we never know more than he knows at any given time, thus we are put into Jake’s shoes and forced to see the world through his eyes. This is why the film seems to cultivate empathy for such an unlikable character. Jake LaMotta is one of the most flawed protagonists we have ever see onscreen.
As with so many of Martin Scorsese’s films, the convergence between sex and violence lies at the center. Jake LaMotta is incapable of releasing his pent-up energy in the bedroom, so he does it in the ring. At one point, he douses his crotch in ice water before a big match to prevent himself from becoming aroused. Another time, his wife comments that an opponent is good-looking, and Jake beats the man to a pulp. A bystander observes, “he ain’t pretty no more.” Sex and violence are synonymous in the film, and one precipitates the other. Jake must always assert his masculinity physically, because he cannot do it sexually. This overlap punctuates not only his romantic relationships, but his familial ones as well. In the first scene between Jake and Joey, he says, “hit me.” In their last scene together, he says, “kiss me.”
The character of Jake LaMotta is an innocent brute. At heart, he is harmless, but he lacks the introspection to prevent his own outbursts. His lack of foresight becomes his tragic flaw, and we observe firsthand the pain that comes with this trait. We watch as Jake rips the diamonds out of his champion belt, only to learn moments later that the belt would have been worth a fortune intact. Jake’s shortcomings are so overpowering that he alienates himself from everyone in his life. His character arc is one of the most pronounced in film history. He goes from being an energetic, young boxer to a lonely, out-of-shape comedian, but the story follows a crooked path to get there. In many ways, it reflects the character’s own lack of introspection. It is difficult to piece together a logical causality to the film, and Lord knows LaMotta would have a hard time doing it.
Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta is problematic, but worthy of praise. Worthy of praise because his dedication and transformation are immense. Problematic because he risks so little exposure in the film. For all the intense physicality of the role, I never feel that De Niro is fully “there”. To me, he looks exhausted, like he has been forced to rehearse these scenes to the point they no longer mean anything to him. It is very difficult to access his emotions in the film. We know Jake LaMotta is angry when he shouts obscenities and punches people in the face, but it feels like De Niro is going through the motions of these activities, not actually experiencing them. The performance is impressive as a physical display, and De Niro’s preparation for the role is inspiring. There’s a power to it, but it feels like exercise with no sweat. De Niro knows the importance of never overplaying, but in this case he may have taken this philosophy to its extreme. He does something similar in Taxi Driver (1976) and that is a great performance, but here, it feels like nothing is going on under the surface. Raging Bull has moments of peak De Niro coupled with moments that feel completely numb. In my opinion, they don’t add up to a great performance. It’s an essential entry in his filmography, but it doesn’t work as a stand-alone piece of art.
Joe Pesci gives a great performance though, and he is more alive than De Niro at any given moment. Cathy Moriarty is excellent as well, especially considering how young she was at the time of shooting. Both performances serve as the perfect counterweight to De Niro’s mannequin-esque lumbering. Pesci and Moriarty are stimulating and unhinged, everything De Niro is not. One wonders if De Niro’s approach to acting has taken him too far down into the hole.
Time and again this has been called Martin Scorsese’s greatest achievement. I actually think it’s his worst film as a director. There are moments of inspired genius, like the editing and the script, but as a whole, it feels unsatisfying and unfocused. First to my mind is the cinematography. I always forget how ugly this movie is. The decision to shoot in black-and-white just makes everything look withered and bare, as well as adding to the defeatist tone. In addition, Scorsese’s juggernaut camerawork becomes completely unnecessary in the ring. Boxing is entertaining enough on its own, but Scorsese’s snap zooms and whip pans make it almost impossible to follow the action. It doesn’t capture the feeling of watching a fight, where we see two athletes spar to a conclusion. Instead what we get are dream-like snapshots, but there’s no magic to it. The most primal sport has been stripped of its vitality. There are other strange directorial choices, like the decision to include a LaMotta family home video in the middle of the film (in color), or the ambiguous Bible quote at the end. These elements don’t align with the rest of the film. They are more like bits and pieces collected from other projects, not held together by any connective tissue. The details give the movie an unsettling air. The blood in the fight scenes looks like dirty water.
The key theme in Scorsese’s filmography is redemption, and here, like in Goodfellas (1990), it is unclear whether or not redemption is actually granted to the protagonist. Is there a grace moment? Are we supposed to forgive the character? These questions are left unanswered, because the film has no thesis. Raging Bull ends with Jake LaMotta speaking to himself in front of the mirror in his dressing room. He is reciting Marlon Brando’s monologue from On the Waterfront (1954), about a boxer who loses his chance at success, because of his brother’s betrayal. A quote then appears, equating Jake to a blind man who has regained his sight. It would appear the opposite is true, and it is because of these ambiguities that the film ultimately fails. Can a higher understanding be achieved by watching Raging Bull? I don’t think so. Scorsese flatly applies the theme of redemption to his subject, and although we can access a meaningful story beneath this membrane, Scorsese’s contributions to the film keep it from being perfect.