Film criticism seemingly doesn't get more banal than commenting upon Martin Scorsese's "fascination" with violence. (Combine it with some extended musings on John Ford's conception of "masculinity" and you've got a full-proof narcoleptic for cineastes.) Then you re-watch Raging Bull and you remember that all those cocktail-party bloviations have their roots in one of American cinema's most complex visions of physical brutality: its communal roots, hypnotic realization, and corrosive legacy. Scorsese sees the glamorization/moralization of filmic violence as irrevocably fused together, revulsion and fascination informing one another equally. And just as crucially, he finds a similar connection between the subjective experiences of those committing violent acts and the sociological factors that deem those acts acceptable (and often assumed). To watch a Scorsese brawl or gunfight is to find a director working through all these multifarious ideas and attempting to get them all on screen—often in the same scene, sometimes in the same frame. Do we feel nauseous or vindicated when Travis Bickle takes out Harvey Keital's brutal pimp at the end of Taxi Driver? Are we watching the implosion of a soul in Goodfellas, or is that bopping period soundtrack too intoxicating for us to notice?
Note, however, that of all the issues that Scorsese tries to cram into his on-screen depictions of masculine viciousness, notions of violence as a product of carefully explored mental disturbance don't register as strongly. His films are not anti-psychological, and one can certainly read many of Scorsese's protagonists as victims of psychic traumas. And yet we aren't asked to put Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, or other of his (anti)heroes on the analyst's couch. (This might be why The Aviator's mommy-scrubbed-me-rather-than-loved-me opening flashback feels so clunky.) We view them more as products of their environment, shaped—and often warped—by cultural expectations whose roots lie beyond their understanding. This contributes to that Scorsese distance: the emotional and intellectual space between us and the character that allows us to plug into their experience while always remaining a bit outside of it, all the better to question their destructive acts. We know them and yet we don't, as perhaps too clear an understanding of their inner workings might upset the delicate balance of empathy and objectivity that allows Scorsese to keep his various thematic plates spinning in the air.
For all these reasons, Scorsese might never again find a subject as ideal as Jake LaMotta, the Bronx-based boxer whose public bouts and private demons Raging Bull chronicles with such bruising acuity. Internalizing the aggressive machismo of his surroundings but lacking the awareness to control it, LaMotta is all brute physical action, throwing hard punches and harder stares at a world made up of objects to be possessed and obstacles to be pummeled. He can be observed, contemplated, judged, but never really understood. When we first meet him, Jake (Robert De Niro) has long given up his lifelong battle with the bulge. His ballooned body stuffed into a suit, he puffs on a cigar as he recites a rhythmic little poem about his past life as a prizefighter. "That's entertainment!" Jake says at the end of his piece, repeating the phrase in a lower, perhaps more contemplative tone as Scorsese cuts from a close-up of his bloated face circa 1964 to a matching shot of him in 1941, leaner and about to be decked by opponent Sugar Ray Robinson in the boxing ring. Such a structure would seem to indicate a certain ruminative quality to Raging Bull, as the LaMotta of later years recalls the path that ended with him fat, alone, and working as a floundering nightclub performer. One of the triumphs of both Scorsese's direction and Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin's screenplay comes from how fascinating Jake remains despite him gleaning little to no awareness regarding his inner rage and crippling sense of sexual insecurity. So many biopics insist on squeezing their real-life subjects through the pop-psychology strainer and catching whatever meager insights dribble out: canned recapitulations of damaged childhoods, meteoric rises, and substance-addled downfalls that reveal more about the schematics of contemporary screenwriting than truths about the individuals at hand. The extent to which Raging Bull sidesteps such reductionism is remarkable.
The film takes us through the highlight reel of LaMotta's life from the early 1940s through the mid 1960s—with those formative early years conspicuously left out. Jake rises in the middleweight boxing ranks along with brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci). He comes achingly close to the title but agrees to throw the match at the last minute, before finally getting the champion's belt in 1949. Along the way, he ditches his first wife in favor of Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a blond beauty from the neighborhood that Jake meets at the local pool.
Without losing sight of LaMotta's career arc, however, Scorsese narrows in on those themes that make Jake's story very much of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre. Jake's possessiveness of Cathy soon morphs into full-blown sexual paranoia. He tracks Cathy's whereabouts and becomes convinced that she's sleeping with local mafioso Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) and members of his crew. This obsession grows out of a more generalized sense of isolationist machismo, revealed through DP Michael Chapman's alternately seductive and unforgiving black-and-white cinematography, Thelma Schoonmaker's stunning POV editing, and the masterfully manipulated soundscape of bustling Bronx streets and swanky Manhattan nightclubs.
Life becomes funneled through Jake's suspicious mentality, the rest of the world blearily fading into the background as innocent pecks on the cheek or clasped hands become infused with ill-defined portent. That we don't comprehend the thought process behind these vivid distrustful glances only heightens our ambivalence toward Jake and underlines his own animalistic territorialism. Is it any wonder that a director known for his expressive use of voiceover chose to keep Jake's inner monologue silent, with only the sounds of roaring lions and disembodied screeches connected to his subjective state? This push-pull effect gives Jake's increasingly aggressive efforts to control Vickie a predictability that's both sickening and queasily fascinating.
The film paints a claustrophobic portrait of violent compulsion, with scenes of domestic abuse made all the more clammy by a static, unblinking camera. Yet beatings are not confined to the home. Any situation is primed to explode in the Bronx of Raging Bull, a point driven home when LaMotta's first losing bout with Sugar Ray Robinson quickly ignites into a stadium-sized altercation. Men throw one another into and out of the boxing ring while a female spectator gets trampled by the enraged mob—a pitiless microcosm of most women's fate in Raging Bull's world of hard line masculinity.
Yet if violence is endemic, it's also not without its thrills and even beauty. I'll never forget the shot of a single wooden folding chair, captured at a low angle as it's hoisted over the crowd and hangs momentarily in the air before crashing down into the stewing masses. And of course there are the boxing sequences themselves, among the most dissected scenes in contemporary cinematic history. Watching them again, their flexibility of tone and technique struck me most. One mostly remembers the bloody climaxes of these bouts, with noses breaking and blood spurting in hypnotic slow motion. But the sheer variety of moods and images proves most impressive, with jagged cuts of flashbulbs and beaten flesh intermixing with lyrical track-ins to Jake as he stews in his corner or stalks around his opponent. This makes sense, given that LaMotta uses the boxing ring not just as an arena for sport, but an ever-shifting psychic space in and of itself: a battleground to defend his wounded ego; a showcase to intimidate and silence his family; and, in his final match with Sugar Ray Robinson, a personal Calvary on which this Catholic sinner transforms physical pummeling into spiritual ablution.
That LaMotta, consciously or otherwise, worked out these inner demons on a public stage made him not just a product of his brutal surroundings, but a performer. His natural aggression found its consummation in the ring, and he attempted to transfer that antagonism to a second-act career as a comedian and nightclub emcee once his boxing career floundered and he moved his family to Florida. Watching him stumble through canned jokes and strike back at drunken hecklers proves, in its own way, as uncomfortable as his boxing bouts. De Niro's performance remains a monumental feat, and you notice it most in these later scenes—not just the much-discussed weight gain, but the unblinking portrayal of an innately physical man slowly becoming trapped by his once-lithe body. The heaviness becomes at once a bodily reality and a metaphoric accretion of wrongdoings. De Niro doesn't play LaMotta with any actorly distance, embracing Jake's essence as primal instinct rather than psychological portraiture. And yet he knows just when to crack open LaMotta a bit and offer a tragic flash of self-awareness. Jake brings Vickie back to his apartment early in the film, giving her a little tour and informing her that he bought the place from his father. Vickie asks if he got the money from fighting. "Yeah," Jake says, looking away for a moment before adding with a quiet laugh, "what else?"