Raging Bull Review

Posted: July 30, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

raging-bull-poster-6Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

I haven’t written a full review for a non-contemporary film in quite a while. I used to do at least one non-modern review a month, but I gradually stopped years ago and I’ve never really returned to it. Part of this is because of the role of the website Letterboxd in my life. For anyone who doesn’t know, the site is basically a social media hub for film geeks to review and discuss films. As such, I’ve had less incentive to write full reviews for non-contemporary stuff here. However a recent rewatch of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the story of boxer Jake La Motta’s (Robert De Niro) rise and fall in the 1940s and 50s, inspired me to write a lot more than the typical Letterboxd review. However this won’t follow the same format as most of my other reviews here either. I won’t spend too much time discussing the craft of the film, what I liked, and what I disliked. These things will come up here and there, but Raging Bull is widely considered a masterpiece that has been praised endlessly. As such, I don’t feel they need to really dwell on how good the filmmaking is. Instead, I’ll be focusing more on meaning and new insights which come to me on this viewing. As such, this will be a spoiler filled review, one I wouldn’t recommend reading unless you’ve seen the film.

I’ve seen Raging Bull many times now, and yet the movie still sits heavy with me after every viewing. This is a raw, powerful, and challenging film which does not hold back at all. I don’t know if there’s ever been a dramatic protagonist as openly unlikable as Jake La Motta. The man is so vicious and obsessed that he destroys everything around him. He should be easy to hate, but it isn’t as simple as that. Scorsese and De Niro present the character in a way that is…maybe not totally sympathetic, but perhaps understandable. Beneath some of the monstrous things Jake does are real human feelings which Scorsese and De Niro tap into. I think everyone has felt jealousy, self-loathing, anger, and obsession at varying levels and at various points in their lives. Most of us may not act on these feelings the way Jake does, but we still have them all the same. It is these emotions which influence Jake throughout the film.

This viewing I also took specific note of the religious iconography seen throughout Jake’s home. I don’t know if Scorsese has ever commented on the meaning specifically, but I have some ideas. The way I see it, Jake is someone who has misinterpreted Christ. Rather than seeing Christ as a positive figure for his good deeds, Jake admires Christ for being able to endure so much suffering without breaking. For Jake, violence and suffering are redemption. Being a boxer is inherently a career of pain, but Jake goes even further. The best example of this is the famous final fight with “Sugar Ray” Robinson. As the fight comes to an end, it becomes clear that Jake cannot win, but he insists on taking the most brutal beating possible. Why? To prove that no one could bring him down. There’s smaller examples of this too, such as the scene where Jake insists his brother Joey repeatedly punch him in the face.

There’s also a lot to be said about the way violence defines Jake as a character. Even by the standards of boxers, Jake is among the most violent, and his aggression outside the ring exceeds it inside. He abuses his various wives, slaps around his brother, and his jealous rage spills out with ease. Jake’s violence is so extreme that it often overshadows the other examples of violence shown throughout. One of the film’s pivotal characters is Jake’s brother Joey (Joe Pesci). By the end of the film, Joey is essentially another victim of his brother, but really he too has an uncontrollable anger and a violent streak. When he catches Jake’s wife Vikki (Cathy Moriarty) out for drinks with another man, Joey proceeds to beat Vikki’s date to a pulp. When the judges rule in favour of “Sugar Ray” Robinson over Jake, the film cuts to Joey in the locker room smashing a wooden chair against the walls. Additionally, the world Jake and Joey live in seems to be a violent one. Mobsters rule the boxing world and the local neighbourhood, and the opening boxing match sees the crowd erupt into chaotic aggression. The point I’m making is that Jake comes from a background of violence and anger, and this almost certainly influenced his own character. The film never over-emphasizes this, but it’s certainly there and worth noting.

Whether you agree with my opinion that Jake’s violence stems from his upbringing or not, there’s no denying said violence is essential to the character. It is this violence which continually pushes him to be a top-notch fighter and eventually a champion, while simultaneously almost destroying his life. However it isn’t until the third act, when the violence is stripped from Jake that his life truly begins to crumble. After retiring from boxing, Jake settles for a life of convenience, gaining excessive weight and spending his nights as the sleazy owner of his own nightclub. This Jake is a far cry from the driven and determined fighter who continuously pushed for success. So what you will about Jake as a person, but his violence fuelled his athleticism, which in turn game him purpose. With that gone, what remains is a shell of the former Jake. Shortly after Vikki leaves him, this time for good, and Jake is arrested for letting minors into his nightclub. It is in his jail cell that Jake has one final act of unleashed rage. Lit by only the small glimmers coming into his cell, Jake mercilessly pounds his fists against his cell wall as he screams and cries. It is not just a brutal release of emotions, but an animalistic breakdown. After this, the Jake we see is even further removed from what we started with. Slow, passionless, almost monotone; this is a man defeated. This is a big part of the reason Jake’s reconciliation with Joey feels hollow; because at that point, it isn’t really Jake anymore, just what’s left of him. One could make a valid argument that the ending shows some level of redemption for Jake, as he comes to accept himself and his mistakes. There’s some truth to that I suppose, but I’m not really buying. Raging Bill a tragedy in the classic literary sense, one where a character’s inherent flaws (in this case jealousy and uncontrollable rage) destroy them. It does not end in victory, but defeat.

Beyond my new insights, Raging Bull remains a masterpiece of filmmaking. It’s been said that Scorsese directed this as if it might be the last movie he ever made and you can feel that in the film. Scorsese creates an amazing rhythm between his actors, crafts incredible scenes, and injects the film with style. The boxing scenes in particular are visually mesmerizing. Simultaneously realistic and abstract, the tone execution of the matches vary from scene to scene based on the emotions of a given moment. There also some of the most beautifully directed sequences you’ll ever see. Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and is complimented nicely by some amazing sound design. The machine gun-esque sound of the camera flashes is unforgettable. This is also the first major collaboration between Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The boxing scenes are a masterclass of cutting, particularly in when to go frantic and when to pull back, and Schoonmaker also weaves the narrative scenes together exceptionally well. The cast is also uniformly great. Joe Pesci revived/created his career with his memorable work as Jake’s brother and their scenes together are great. Cathy Moriarty also delivers a great turn as she transitions from a young girl awestruck by this older guy to a trapped housewife really elegantly. And then there’s Robert De Niro, who delivers one of the top five greatest screen performances of all-time. Many praise the physicality of the role; getting in peak shape and subsequently putting on the weight for the end of Jake’s life. That’s certainly impressive, but its importance runs deeper than a gimmick. De Niro draws off the physicality and uses it to inform the character mentally and emotionally. The gamut of emotions De Niro runs and the complexity he brings out is astounding. It’s all very powerful.

The film on the whole is one of the most perfectly made of all-time. That said, it’s also a film that I can understand why some have reservations with. This is an unflinching portrait of a truly despicable person, but that’s also the point. With Raging Bull, Scorsese and De Niro have cut to the core of a deplorable human being and looked honestly. It isn’t a film made to judge, nor to defend, but to observe. It’s also an incredibly well-made work of art. You can feel the passion and hard work in every scene, permeating through beyond the screen. I love it.


  1. […] Other Opinions Are Available. What did these people have to say about Raging Bull? Roger Ebert Slant Magazine PG Cooper […]

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