Review: Raging Bull

I’m going to assume that for a classic film, I don’t need to worry about spoilers. If I’m writing something about a recent film (next Wednesday will feature a write-up on District 9, for example) I’ll let you know before I launch into spoiler-laden content. The classics, though, as you’ve likely had about twenty years to catch them, are past that statute of limitations. That having been said…

Raging Bull is a film that I was looking forward a great deal to seeing. It’s a Scorsese film, it’s a DeNiro film, it’s an early Scorsese/DeNiro film. It has all the elements of cinematic success (who knew there were so few elements?). Considering the film is argued to be one of the best film of the 1980s (if not the best), I would have expected to enjoy it a bit more than I did. Since seeing it, I’ve spent some time trying to puzzle out why I would have such a tepid reaction to a cinematic giant such as this film, and I think I’ve got it.

The modern bio-pic is very different from the way Raging Bull handles things. Films like Walk the Line or Ray orĀ Erin Brockovich or even titles that are less obviously bio-pics like The Insider are very focused on a theme and a moral. Johnny Cash is battling the personal demons he has relating to his brother’s death and his father’s approval. Ray Charles is dealing with addiction and pioneering the fight against racism. Erin Brockovich is an everyday Jane fighting corporate greed. Similarly, Jeffrey Wigand is taking a stand against Big Tobacco in spite of the dangers it represents. These are all pretty targeted stories. These are less films that chronicle the lives of their subjects and more films that tell a story that just happen to have their subjects as the protagonists.

Raging Bull is a film that in very honest terms is telling about the life of boxer Jake LaMotta. There’s a story being told, but it’s almost told in vacuum. LaMotta’s life isn’t something that can be equated to a struggle that the everyday film-goer can relate to. It’s not connected to the era in terms of any social movement or historical event. LaMotta is the film’s hero and its sole villain. He begins the film as a brash, stubborn, violent and jealous man who wants to be a big shot. He ends the film as a brash, stubborn, violent and jealous man who has seen those traits take him from his role as a big shot to his current position as a has-been. LaMotta never seems to learn a lesson throughout the entire film, making him exceedingly hard to identify with. He beats his wife, is insanely jealous of her (ignoring the irony that he left his first wife to be with her) and alienates his brother after almost beating him to death after his brother had spent his life doing nothing but helping LaMotta to achieve his goals. So, while the film is shot and written with the authenticity that Scorsese is so well known for, and DeNiro and Pesci give characteristically strong performances, I didn’t feel that the meat of the film was satisfying. It was basically “everything sucks for Jake LaMotta because of Jake LaMotta and then the movie ends”.

It seems to me that much of the film’s reputation is formed around DeNiro’s weight gain for the film, considered to be the epitome of method acting. The film shut down production for months in the middle of filming so that DeNiro could complete LaMotta’s weight gain into his later years, packing on 60lbs. for the role.

Raging Bull is a film with excellent performances, excellent direction and cinematography, believable dialog and characters and a story that is perhaps too real to be workable for today’s audience. Is it bad that I found myself dissatisfied with a film that appeared to be missing the veneer of Hollywood storytelling all over it? Probably. But at the same time, my taste is of course infallible (I mean, obviously). So we appear to be at an impasse.

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  1. #1 by Oliver Grigsby on August 26, 2009 - 12:07 PM

    Man, I totally agree. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who didn’t really enjoy Raging Bull.

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