Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raging Bull

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 4
Year: 1980
Writer: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin (adaptation), Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage (book)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

“Raging Bull” tells the story of a monster. The film is exceedingly powerful, raw and horrifying—unafraid to look unflinchingly into the eyes of a man portrayed to have no redemptive qualities. The movie may not flinch, but I sure did. Here is a masterpiece I genuinely hope I won’t have to watch again.

Jake LaMotta is a famous enough wrestler that even I, who know nothing about boxing, have heard of him. The film, adapted from his autobiography by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, is not a conventional biopic in any sense of the word. It tracks LaMotta’s rise to fame and fall into self-destruction, yes, but it isn’t interested in the wrestling as anything more than an insight into his character. What the film is interested in is LaMotta’s relationships with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), two (relatively) innocent people roped to him and incessantly suffering because of it.

From what we see, Jake doesn’t seem like a particularly smart man. He does terrible things to the people he claims to love and then takes punishment for it not from those he’s wronged, but from other boxers wailing on him in the ring. It’s a fascinating, sickening contradiction. He vents his rage (I honestly didn’t mean that to be a pun) against his opponents but also openly takes some of the worst beatings ever filmed…not for forgiveness but to feel even more sorry for himself. We’ve all met people like this—self defeated lugs who do horrible things, punish themselves and then expect you to forgive them because they are so pathetic, all the while beginning the circle once more. Over the course of the movie he spirals more and more out of control until he is left (deservedly) alone, jailed and obese. De Niro disappears into the role with his usual excellence—I’d say this is the bravest performance of his career because there is just nothing redeeming about the guy. At least we had sympathy for Travis Bickle.

Joey and Vickie, the two who suffer the most at Jake’s hands, are both fascinating. Vickie doesn’t seem all too interested in LaMotta when she first meets him, playing hard to get by not showing much emotion as to whether she likes him or not. Then she marries him. From this moment forward, he accuses her of cheating on him repeatedly (there’s never any evidence that she is) and there isn’t a scene she’s in after the first act where he’s not overcome with jealousy. There’s a flash-forward about halfway through the film to a scene in a hotel room before a match, and we finally understand just how much LaMotta has destroyed her. Her face is emotionless and she only answers questions with simple one-word responses, her eyes darting to her husband, hoping her answers haven’t enraged him somehow. She’s even afraid to order a cheeseburger here. During some of the fight scenes, director Martin Scorsese shows Vickie in the audience, watching her husband with an unreadable face. Is she hoping he wins, or praying his opponent murders him?

When the film begins, Joey seems to genuinely love his brother and thinks he knows how to handle Jake’s anger. They are both Italian Catholics, which of course is second only to Irish Catholics (I know this since I am one) in overwhelming guilt and familial bonds, even when they aren’t deserved. Joey tries to emulate Jake in a scene where he savagely beats a man who was speaking to Vickie, but realizes that’s not him. As the years pass, Jake gets more and more violent and unpredictable, causing Joey more frustration and danger.

Everything boils over in a authentically cringe-worthy (not a complaint since we’re supposed to feel that way) sequence where Jake accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife. When Joey leaves in frustration, Jake goes upstairs, berates and beats Vickie, then stomps across town to Joey’s house and physically assaults him in front of his children. This effectively ends Joey’s relationship to his brother, but Vickie (bruised face and all) returns to Jake later that night.

The sequence so unnerved me that, after it ended I realized I had made such tight fists with my hands that my fingernails had actually broken the skin in my palms. I had to turn off the movie for an hour, walk outside and stand in the sun. I should mention here that, while my family life never reached this level of drama, I was brought up in a household with an alcoholic father where things could escalate very quickly. Because of this, the movie touched certain nerves and got under my skin in certain ways most viewers would (hopefully) be immune to. That’s the reason I don’t want to see the movie again. Too many memories I’ve already dealt with and moved on from.

Anyway, now that I’ve finished oversharing, let’s get back to “Raging Bull.” Scorsese was right to shoot the film in stark black-and-white. It underlines the beauty of Vickie in the early sequences, but also emphasizes the revulsion of the fight scenes. Like in “Schindler’s List,” color would have undercut the power of the violence. The different fight sequences throughout the movie are jaw-droppingly staged and shot. I didn’t even realize until the sequence that showed an entire stadium of fans that the other fights only showed the first row or two of audience, instead draping the background in dark gray shadows and groups of lights. The fights are quite intense, and not just because of the generous use of blood and gore (when LaMotta breaks his opponent’s nose, I had to look away, and I never look away). Scorsese throws in some wild angles and the ring itself seems to alter in size from shot to shot.

To me, the heart of the movie is one of its last scenes. Years have passed, and Jake is doing bad stand-up comedy in New York when he fatefully sees Joey going into a convenience store. Jake follows Joey, doing everything humanly possible to make his brother talk to him again. When Joey reaches his car, Jake stops him from entering and physically forces Joey to hug him and will not let him leave until Joey promises to call him, even though they both know that won’t happen. Even all these years later, Jake still believes that the only way to get someone to love him is to force it upon him. He might be humbled, but he hasn’t changed. They never do.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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