This movie feels like something of an “anti-Rocky”, the story of all those fighters that don’t manage to stay on top very long or sacrifice something fundamental to get there. Even though there’s success in the ring for the Raging Bull, his personal life is in a perpetual shambles of his own making. The adaptation of LaMotta’s autobiography is surprisingly stark about painting him as an unsympathetic character, and by the time the credits roll you wonder how the real LaMotta must feel about it. Does he realize, at long last, what he’s done to his life? Or does he understand what people must think about the events that unfolded on the screen? The movie suggests that he simply lacks the self-awareness to realize the consequences of his actions. I genuinely hope that’s not the case.
La Motta is a middleweight boxer, coming up as a hot-headed kid raised in a neighborhood full of them. In one of the early scenes, a fight erupts in the club that La Motta hits after one of his bouts. He grew up in a place where fist-fighting were one of the major ways to resolve your conflicts, and it’s clear that he took that lesson to heart. Jake is the first to take offense, the last to explain why he’s offended; he simply causes things to escalate until he has the opportunity to make them physical.
His brother Joey (Pesci) is the stabilizing influence that keeps Jake on track when he threatens to go off the rails. Poor Joey has to put up with a lot; from Jake’s ever-shifting moods to managing the reputation of the fighter in the neighborhood. It’s a thankless job that he does because he sees the potential of his brother, and possesses a weary, patient love that’s evident in just about everything he does.
Jake gets out of a relationship with a woman he ignores and marries a very young blonde he fancied from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the public pool. He’s charming at first, but as soon as he’s wed her he becomes extraordinarily paranoid and possessive while ignoring her as well, for the most part. Meanwhile, he reluctantly throws a fight to get the title shot that he’s always been looking for after being told to take a dive by the Mob. Jake is banned for throwing the fight in such an obvious manner, but comes back to win the middleweight championship. He’s on top of the world with a loyal brother in his corner and a beautiful blonde on his arm. But he’s still completely miserable.
That misery gets spread to everyone he knows because he doesn’t know how else to handle it. His paranoia spares no one, and he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and his brother. What’s worse is how he keeps sinking lower and lower both professionally and emotionally, each side exacerbating the pain of the other, and how he never realizes that the hell he’s in is the one he created for himself. It’s incredibly hard to watch; at first you feel sympathy for Jake’s lack of self-awareness, but then you just want to see his family get out of an awfully toxic situation.
Scorsese does a wonderful job making sure no punches are pulled. He’s not working with a sympathetic lead here at all, but he doesn’t try to gloss over Jake’s behavior or make excuses for him. De Niro is a wonder here, as a man who is fascinating in his unlikeability, but is somehow sympathetic with this basic, relatable desire to be liked, respected, loved. The trouble is that Jake doesn’t let higher thinking work for him. If he thinks he’s been slighted then he lashes out with the immediate, unthinking hostility of an animal. It’s instinct for him to lash back, and he does repeatedly against enemies real or (mostly) imagined.
The brutality in Jake’s world is inescapable. Even when he wins it feels like a loss; he simply takes a tremendous beating without going down before the other guy. The boxing scenes, which comprise surprisingly little of the movie are memorable for the mood they create. I remember glimpses of faces rocked by oversized gloves, the sound of meat being slapped, a face that is gradually degraded. Each battle takes something out of Jake, even if he downplays it or doesn’t realize it. Maybe it’s living with those consequences that makes it so easy for him to fly off the handle; the movie never makes that connection for us, but simply lays the evidence there to make of what we will.
So what do we make of this? Jake serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to make sure that whatever we do, make sure we do it for the right reasons. Remember who our friends are, remember their hardships too. But most importantly, be aware that we are shaped by the people around us and we shape the people we’re with. We might not be able to help the impression left on us, but we can control the impression we make. Jake has no idea about any of this because he can’t think past his own pain or pleasure. And the effects of that short-sightedness are terrible to see.
I can see why so many people regard Raging Bull as Scorsese’s best movie. He’s a director with a sure hand here, working with two actors who give stunning performances. It’s definitely earned its place here in the top 100, but that being said I’d never want to watch it again. It contains a bleakness that’s hard to stomach, and no guarantees that the people involved have learned anything by what they’ve been through. Much like La Motta himself, it is what it is.