A crisp and penetrating character drama that rings true as so much more than a boxing film. Raging Bull transcended a sports genre that is to this day rife with Hollywood clichés and uninspired storytelling. At the heart of its transcendence is Robert De Niro’s performance as legendary boxer Jake LaMotta. De Niro’s acting – the razor-sharp mood swings, non-linear thought processes, and profanity laden quips – allowed Scorsese to focus on LaMotta’s personal life and not just the bludgeoning of anything that stood in his path. In the wake of Raging Bull, De Niro’s acting would become the template for every rough-around-the-edges Italian-American character in American cinema for the next twenty-five years. Jake Gyllenhaal, who was born on the day Raging Bull was released in theaters in 1980, garnered attention for what many thought would be a De Niro-esque performance in his 2015 film Southpaw. Sadly, Southpaw took its place in a long line of boiler-plate boxing films unable to escape the long and dark shadow that Raging Bull has cast on the genre – a fate that has befallen nearly all of the well-intentioned boxing films of the past thirty-five years. Among viewers and critics alike, Raging Bull is considered THE crowning achievement for all of Hollywood in the 1980’s. With the weight of all that how did such a cunning and concise piece of cinematic storytelling NOT walk away with Best Picture that year?
Scorsese’s stylistic tact for Raging Bull mirrors the man it chronicles: brutal, piercing, and never deeper than it seems. It mirrors all of us, and who we are in our secret moments of self-doubt and anger. We watch as a brutish LaMotta gets everything he ever wanted, the money, the woman, the title. Scorsese then puts LaMotta’s insecurities and tyrannical nature front and center. Viewers are helpless to interfere as we watch the tyrant crumble from within and lose everything. That helpless feeling makes this a terrifying film; something Academy voters were sure to notice. No parallel can be drawn between personal salvation and any larger theme of Americana, because for LaMotta no personal salvation exists. Little about Raging Bull lands within the platitudes that typical American moviegoers latch on to. Continue reading