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Raging Bull

Raging Bull, 1980

Tonight turned into a double bill of abusive dudes ruining lives.

This film is a classic, and rightfully so. The story follows boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) in his quest for a championship belt, while at the same time his unbridled jealousy and anger issues damage all of his personal relationships, including his relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

De Niro's lead performance is a stand-out, embodying a man who has power and potential, but who constantly sabotages himself and gives in to the worst voices in his head. One of my favorite details was the way that La Motta would just be eating some huge sandwich while supposedly trying to lose weight. The less amusing side of this behavior is his increasingly unhinged jealousy regarding his wife. At first Jake doesn't like her talking to other men in a nightclub, but before long even her kissing a friend goodbye turns into a reason to slap her around and accuse her of cheating.

I also really appreciated the writing and acting (by Pesci) of Jake's brother, Joey. Joey has the clear sight to see Jake's folly and also to see how to leverage Jake's talent. At the same time, Jake is Joey's meal ticket. This means that Joey oscillated back and forth between being a voice of reason and being an enabler. There are times that he defends Vickie and other times that he berates her and encourages Jake to leave her. Joey has to walk a fine line between keeping Jake motivated and focused, but not flying into a rage.

Cathy Moriarty gives a good performance as Vickie, but I didn't feel as if the writing or her scenes with Jake did a good enough job of conveying the apparently deep love that she has for him that keeps her coming back, even after a particularly violent act of abuse. Obviously such relationships exist, but somehow I wasn't convinced of her love. The film has her say it several times, but I didn't entirely buy it. I think that a few more scenes of the two of them would have gone a long way to showing us why she continues to stay enamored of him even after the honeymoon is over.

The style of the film and specifically the way that the boxing scenes were shot is also very powerful. I always have mixed emotions watching boxing scenes--my grandfather was a boxer and our family has always had . . . complex emotions about what it did to him. The boxing scenes in this film are otherworldly and bloody. I loved one specific shot from Jake's point of view in which his opponent is seen against bright lights and the quality of light suddenly shifts. There's also a wonderful claustrophobia to the way that Scorsese films the scenes in the La Motta household--you feel how oppressive it is to live with such a big personality and how it seems as if there are no safe corners.

A compelling biographical sports film anchored with a rightfully-lauded lead performance.

EDIT: I feel like this has probably been covered many times by other reviewers, but you could probably write pages and pages of analysis about the film's portrayal of and Jake's perception of masculinity. Jake's behavior, which he clearly considers being "manly" and authoritative, reads as childish, destructive, and hypocritical (despite his raging jealousy that means his wife can't even look at or talk about another man, Jake has no qualms about putting his hands all over other women). Jake's main point of pride in his "craft" seems to mostly come from his ability to take punches to the face and not fall down.