(A quick aside before I begin the review proper. I watched this movie in the wee hours of Monday/Tuesday morning. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet because I went out and partied on Tuesday and was hung over the entirety of Wednesday. Anyways, if my review isn’t up to my usual standards [particularly my recent reviews of Into the Wild or Melancholia], that’s why. My apologies.)
Finally! After over three years of waiting, one of my goals for this blog has finally come true. After three years of review films, I think it’s safe to say that my understanding and appreciation of cinema has deepened and my taste in movies has certainly matured since I was in high school. And one of my goals for this blog was to find a movie that I had watched for the first time when I was much younger that is supposed to be a “classic” but that I simply didn’t enjoy and finally understand why it’s held in such high regard and enjoy it as much as everyone else.
Vertigo is the closest I’ve come although I still find the first 2/3 of that film to be an insufferable bore (thankfully, it’s last act is perfection). My viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia for this blog were marked by an appreciation of the films’ technical merits but no real pleasure (once again, still think they’re mostly insufferable bores). When I was in high school, I didn’t get the hype surrounding Raging Bull at all, and I’ve long thought that De Niro only won his Oscar because he gained 60 pounds during the film’s shoot. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
All of the other “classics” that I’m still yet to warm to beyond their technical merits have consistently suffered from what I view as a deficiency of compelling character. Lawrence of Arabia is interesting as a historical document (though skewed towards the notion of British exceptionalism) and a phenomenal bit of epic filmmaking, but the film has nothing to say about why T.H. Lawrence is such a legendary and endlessly fascinating figure. And I’m actually unsure if 2001 has anything interesting to say whatsoever. But, if there’s ever been a more intense portrait of desperate, wounded masculinity than Raging Bull, I don’t know what it is.
Scorsese is famous for his gritty, stylistic crime thrillers but anyone who’s seen The Age of Innocence or Taxi Driver (or even the recent The Wolf of Wall Street) knows that his real talents lie in burrowing into the heart of his characters; his most famous films simply combine great characters with iconoclastic style. The ultimate sacrifice of his own happiness that Newland makes in The Age of Innocence is one of the most moving and powerful arcs of Scorsese’s career. And by casting aside the typical tale of good guys and bad guys for Raging Bull, Scorsese lets us see the full force of his understanding of character in one of his most memorable “heroes,” the real life boxer, Jake La Motta (Silver Lining Playbook‘s Robert De Niro).
Based on La Motta’s (ghost-written) autobiography, Raging Bull takes a look into the La Motta’s rise to boxing world champion as well as the ultimate self-destruction that rules every step of his life. Managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who only seems kept together in comparison to Jake, the film begins when a 19 year old Jake La Motta loses his first boxing fight by decision. In an unhappy marriage (Jake has a major Madonna/Whore complex), Jake meets the 15 year old Vicky (Casper‘s Cathy Moriarty), and he instantly falls for the virginal beauty. But, the two’s marriage only leads to heartbreak and destruction for both.
With the possible exception of Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth, there has never been a male lead in the cinema as insanely jealous and aggressive as Jake La Motta. What’s more astounding is the extent to which Jake himself owns up to and wished to atone for his outrageous behavior. Jake is sweet and tender with Vicky until they get married and sleep together. And from that point forward, he’ll beat and harass her if she so much as looks at another man. At one point in the film, she referred to another boxer as a good looking man and Jake beats him so viciously in their next match that he’ll never be good looking again.
And, at the end of the day, Raging Bull is an attempt by Martin Scorsese to explore the dichotomy of Jake’s violent and brutal presence in the ring (and how said violence makes him successful as a boxer) and that same violence and brutality destroying his personal life. Jake becomes convinced that his brother is sleeping with Vickie just because Joey beat a mobster outside a club to protect Jake’s honor. And so Jake beats Joey within an inch of his life. And although that toughness means Jake can stand toe to toe with Sugar Ray Robinson, it makes him an awful husband and a generally terrible human being.
And Robert De Niro’s performance makes this film. On some level, I still question if the film is as deep and definitive of overt masculine desperation as it makes itself out to be or if Robert De Niro is just that good. Regardless of the answer to that question, De Niro gives one of the finest performances of his iconic career as Jake La Motta. There’s a scene later in the film where La Motta’s been arrested and is thrown in jail, and the animalistic ferocity of De Niro’s performance is one of the most intensely acted scenes in film history, and the rest of the movie lives up to that high standard. To be honest, him gaining the 60 lbs. himself seems like an unnecessary stunt when his performance alone carries the film.
The film’s cinematography is as brutal and unforgiving as the movie’s script. Trust me when I say you haven’t seen a boxing movie like this before. Replacing the “boxing ballet” of titles like Rocky with buckets of blood and in-your-face camera angles, Raging Bull makes you feel every punch and every cut. In fact, Raging Bull goes beyond reality unless Jake La Motta’s final bout against Sugar Ray Robinson is really as bloody as this film suggests (which is to say that by the end, Jake looked like Sloth from The Goonies). And the gorgeous black & white cinematography fits just as well for the domestic segments though they are nearly as brutal and terrifying as the boxing sections (which is what makes Raging Bull such a classic).
Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty both shine in some of the earlier roles of their career (I might be wrong, but I think this was Moriarty’s first role). Vickie is less a character in her own right and more a bounce board for Jake’s insane rage. And her lack of depth is probably the sole reason I’m not giving this film perfect marks (spoiler). But, Cathy Moriarty works wonders with what she’s given, and of course, Joe Pesci is always your go to man if you need a small guy with an insane presence and a hair-trigger temper. The role isn’t as substantive as his parts in Goodfellas or Casino (I know I’m one of the latter’s few defenders), but he steals every scene he’s in as usual.
As I said, I watched this film several days ago, and I’m at work and I just need to draw this review to a premature close. Raging Bull is clearly one of the great films of the 1980s which was sadly something of a dry period for great American cinema (the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate essentially ended the New Hollywood era of the 60s and 70s), and while I wouldn’t put it over the top of Taxi Driver as Scorsese’s best film (or even the flawed Gangs of New York for that matter), it is one of the great portraits of American masculinity and a must-see for all film lovers.
Final Score: A