Raging Bull review: a character study for the ages

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a movie about the hatred, anger and jealousy of a very insecure man. His name is Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a world renowned boxer in the 1940s. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it’s a biopic, and a very true one at that. That is one of the film’s many traits; it doesn’t have to be evasive of the facts in order to be gripping, because the story it is based off is just as hate driven and anger filled as the on-screen adaptation.

A familiar watcher of Scorsese will certainly pick up the religious imagery in his films. This benign sense of reckoning plays a big part in most of his characters, but it is so much more evident in Jake. The ring in which he fights is a way to efficiently release his demons, and when that’s not enough, he confiscates the emotions of everyone around him, twisting and turning them until they become just as broken down as he is. This gut wrenching set of games is all too uncomfortable to watch, although it does lead to strong suggestions that there will be reconcile. This is not the case. Jake, being his usual self, destroys everyone around him. This defeatist tone is very rare to see. Even the film considered to be the director’s darkest (“Taxi Driver”) could be interpreted as having a gallant ending. Many have criticised the film for not exploring the central character enough, which is an argument I can see no backing to; if anything, not showing Jake’s childhood years or experiences uncommon to him only serves testament to the fact that he has and always will be what he is–the burdening man. This emotive realism is even more prevalent in the beginning and closing scenes, in which we see a much older, much more beaten down Jake. He is broke, just as sinister, and what he has always been–lonely.

One of the interesting early scenes in Raging Bull shows Jake’s brother Joey (Joe Pesci) repeatedly hit him at his own request. A common term for this is sadomasochism, a recurring theme in the film. Later on we see the infamous scene in which Jake doesn’t go down at the hands of his arch rival Sugar Ray Robinson. Both are met with an aggressive response, which only reiterates the point that Jake is an emotional wreck, and cannot make sense of what he feels for anyone. His jealousy and sexual angst towards his wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) is another key topic of discussion. She is his equal in some ways, mostly in their clashes with one another. But the two have very different and unequal ideas of love; she feels a connection with Jake, whereas he just falls to the normal Scorsese character role of not being able to trust, relate to or connect with women. Dry and un-mitigating are the interactions between Jake and those he is unfamiliar with. He tries to be civil with them, and does so successfully. What is not known, however, are Jake’s feelings towards these people. He does so well at not letting his emotions show which creates the allure of his isolation. I’m sure it is not quite as simple as this–I’m sure he doesn’t want to know these people, regardless of whether he can do so or not.

After attempts at gaining a title shot, Jake is faced with the inconvenient task of taking an up-coming fighter apart. He sure enough does–and it had no effect on him whatsoever. It made him happy more than anything, because it certified the position that his wife would never call the opponent good looking again. These scenes are extremely powerful ones, so much so that it knocked me back quite considerably. The depiction of violence in both LaMotta’s inner and exterior ring is so gruesome and unprovoked that it scares me to know it’s real. Scorsese and Cinematographer Michael Chapman, and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker did a wonderful job in capturing the fight scenes. After all, it’s not a boxing film at all, but the shots and choreography are far superior to any pure boxing film I’ve seen. The opening scene is one of the most sensational ever created. It is so subtle, but it works as an amazing piece of foreshadowing…recalling every great shot in the film would be impossible, so I’ll leave it with Jake: “I recall every fall, every hook, every jab.”


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Nice review, Thomas. I have a little advice, being a LOT older and excellent in grammar, punctuation, etc. Proof VERY CAREFULLY several times, but also, ask somebody else to read it. It’s very hard to proof your own work. Also, I thought some of your phrasing was a little awkward, so ask whoever reads it for you to look for those things, too. Be sure to let this person know it’s ok to be brutal–nothing short of that will help you. Congratulations on starting early with your career preparation. I hope you’re able to go to a university that specializes in your area. You’re going to be great, but employers go to those schools to recruit. Also, go to film festivals to network. (I work in a university as a career advisor.) Good luck to you!

    • Thomas Priday

      Thanks a lot for the advice, Betsy. I’m glad you took the time to read this review and leave some feedback. I will definitely ask someone else to read it first next time.

  2. One of my all time favorite movies. Thanks for the review.

    • Thomas Priday

      Thanks for checking it out, friend.

      It’s definitely my all-time favorite, and although it’s not as ‘great’ as Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey etc. it hits me the most.

  3. One of Scorsese’s finest. And boy does he have many…

  4. Great write up, Thomas. I hold this film in very high regard and it is in my top 5 best Scorcese films. I am actually about to review “The Last Temptation Of Christ” for my blog. Thanks for the post and good luck with your future reviews! 😀

    • Thomas Priday

      Thanks, Vic. I’m glad you enjoy the film; many people I speak to don’t. 🙁

      I’ll be looking out for your review. 🙂

  5. Mike G

    I’m curious to know what you think of Scorsese’s later films such as Hugo, Shutter Island, and The Departed. I think the most impressive thing about him is that he’s still putting out quality, even at his age. Nice review!

    • Thomas Priday

      I’m a huge fan of Hugo, and I quite like The Departed, even though it doesn’t feel like a Scorsese film. I’m not a fan of Shutter Island however, but yes, Scorsese is still making very good movies. Thanks for checking this out, Michael. 🙂

  6. Mike G

    Man, I know Shutter Island has its detractors but I’m definitely not one of them. So atmospheric and fantastic performances. It wasn’t about the twist, it was about the journey. It was about who Teddy Daniels was and why he was at Shutter Island. I think that gets lost on a lot of people who don’t like it because that’s the common complaint I see about the film.

    • Thomas Priday

      I totally understand the appeal of it, though. It is a stand alone genre in itself, and the performances are exquisite. On the other hand, I myself have a problem with really paradoxical films. Inception is another, although Shutter is a lot smarter. Also, take into account that I do not HATE the film at all. I just don’t think it ranks with Scorsese’s other films.

  7. One of my all time favourite films. Good review.

  8. Megan Kelly
    Megan Kelly

    Scorsese is truly one of the finest directors of the last 50 years. His films excite and inspire me with every viewing. Raging Bull is a personal favorite, because it implores all of his most recognizable motifs. Catholic underlying themes, the internal battle of man between God and sin, the way he depicts women, all provide a truly interesting backdrop for the story he chooses to tell. Great article.

  9. Tatijana

    I have never seen this movie. But when it comes to the fighting movies I have seen, this one seems to have been done much better and actually portrays the issues and emotions or lack there of of the characters a lot better. That makes it more of a focus on the people than the fighting so would probably be interesting even to a person who doesn’t usually like fighting movies haha.

  10. The title of the movie was so appropriate, though.

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