Raging Bull is an unforgettable portrait of man who seemed to lack the capacity and imagination to ever be happy. It’s not a film you watch to be uplifted or reassured about the human condition. The most pleasant thought you can take away from the story of Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro) is how fortunate you were not to be one of his friends. Or him.
Stacked next to La Motta, DeNiro’s other great role for director Martin Scorcese, Travis Bickle, is a poster child for well-adjusted contentment. La Motta is a fast-rising middle-weight boxer in the early 1940s, and he treats everyone outside the ring like he does his opponents. Jake is a simple-minded thug who sometimes seems incapable of holding even one complete thought inside his thick skull. If it wasn’t for his long-suffering brother, Joey (Joe Pecsi), Jake would have a line of people out the door, waiting for their chance to beat the shit out of him.
Along the way, he encounters 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) at a local swimming pool and becomes obsessed with her. Even after he marries her, he become fixated on the idea that, if he found her attractive, so must every other man in the western hemisphere. His obsession shifts from winning her affections to finding out with whom she’s cheating on him. Joey does his best to keep Jake’s mind on the next fight which, for much of the 1940s, was with Sugar Ray Robinson. The two men were apparently so feared for a while by the rest of the middle-weight class that sometimes the only fights they could get were with each other.
Jake’s other obsession is with winning a title. This is an understandable thing for a boxer to focus on, but like with Vickie, this leads him to some pretty poor decisions that slow his rise through the ranks and damage his reputation. Along the way, his twin obsessions combined with his growing paranoia drive a deeper and deeper wedge between him and everyone who might care about Jake La Motta.
DeNiro’s performance here is the stuff of acting clinics. He’s a highly intelligent actor, but we never catch a glimmer of that Robert DeNiro in Jake La Motta. The real person is utterly submerged inside this belligerent, somewhat dim, paranoid, thoroughly miserable character. Much attention was focused on DeNiro gaining 60 pounds to play La Motta in his later years, but even without that legendary commitment to his craft, DeNiro’s work as the younger man in his prime is more than worthy of the Best Acting Oscar that he took home for this film.
Unlike other boxing films, Scorcese seems to find no gladiatorial romanticism in the sport. In Raging Bull, boxing is brutal, bloody and appeals to people’s baser instincts. Sometimes it seems that people cheer for La Motta just because he’s white and, well, the other guy isn’t. I’m not sure if this is how Scorcese actually sees boxing or if he just holds it up as a reflection of Jake La Motta’s inner demons. Either way, the boxing world of Raging Bull as just as seedy and depraved as a man who didn’t seem to know any other way to live.