Ahh, the biopic. Lionizing and valorizing when you ought to humanize and critique, you are the greatest filmic manifestation of the hyper-individualist tendencies of modern America society which favor a view of the world where-in individuals are its chief agents. You emphasize not the complicated and conflicting causation of change in society, but the “greatness” of certain individuals who can rise above others and lead. As a result, you tend to see something innately compelling about individuals and displace how these individuals developed in the first place, what social factors drove their development. If you are particularly adventurous, you will pay lip service to how complicated and flawed these individuals can be in secret, but nothing more.
You give us a sort of “greatest hits” version of a life, where we see important events we are familiar with and learn how individuals are connected to them, and often influence them. You are a lecture in a film’s clothing, not a living and breathing account of human frailty but a waxworks show for middlebrow suburban types interested in a patina of depth without willing to truly seek it out. You suffocate on your own boredom. You are formally stifling, for you rely on “historical evidence” in lieu of storytelling prowess, banalized content rather than form, and you place all your cards on one “Great Performance” as a galvanizing center in hopes that he or she will distract from the lack of directing or scripting skill on display around them.
But you also found a home for Raging Bull, your greatest filmic critique ever, a work that detests you and throws your filmic bones to the dogs and replaces them with something harrowing, clinically maddening, and dangerously worried at every turn. This is a film that hates you as much as I do, and once in a while I will find it in me to put my hate aside to love you for giving me this one true gem of the cinema. Thank you biopic. Let’s be as the suburban neighbors who love you so, and I’ll perform my “love” for you today in public to appease the neighborhood association and go back to hating you in secret tomorrow.
Perhaps Scorsese is helped along by the fact that Jake LaMotta is much less well-known than many other biopic subjects, and thus there is perhaps less pressure to paint him as a “great” person, but this is about as radically at odds with its genre’s foundations as any film ever released by such a mainstream director, at during the 1980s. It’s a wry irony that it is also the pinnacle of its genre. Quite honestly, nothing else even comes within spitting distance. With direction as bruised and battered as a boxing match, Scorsese provides a tour-de-force directorial feat for the ages, presenting a film at once low-key and quotidian as well as brutally maximalist, even outre. It’s a masterpiece of the cinema: psychotic, rigorously boxed into a corner, beaten to a pulp, sublimely chaotic, and exhaustively, violently angry. It’s also Scorsese’s greatest film, perhaps the greatest American film since its release just shy of 35 years ago.
Scorsese’s (and writer Paul Schrader’s) view of Jake LaMotta is not pretty. As presented here, he’s a paranoid misanthrope, a bitter misogynist, and a violent mess (and mass) of a person. Throughout the film we are by turns afraid of him and pitiful toward him. He’s always on the verge of a breakdown, and even when he presents himself as a gentleman, we know the bitter truth is bubbling below, not far from the surface. The film’s most famous line, uttered after the climactic boxing match with long-time rival Sugar Ray Robinson, reflects LaMotta’s own distorted view of victory. Having received a vicious beating in the ring and lost the match, he utters “You didn’t get me down Ray”. His face bloody and beaten to a pulp, he receives what little sense of satisfaction and power he can from losing to a ten-round bell rather than a knockout. In any other film, this would be an underdog anthem; here it’s a sick joke at his expense, and he probably deserves it. When we first and last see him, he’s fat, balding, and spouting pathetic one-liners in a small comedy club, giving us self-deprecating jabs at his own expense and aiming very much below-the-belt. But the line he delivers in the ring, like a nihilist, mocking, blackhearted Rocky, is his most anxious, worried verbal jab to the ribs ever. It hits hard and lasts, and his target is himself. He just doesn’t realize it.
In other words, Jake LaMotta is not a nice guy; he’s a broken, brittle shell of a man. The only reason we want him to win is so his violence can be taken out in the ring rather than on his friends and family at home, so his aggressive alpha-male status has a socially accepted outlet to keep it from unleashing itself on society elsewhere. He’s a maelstrom of bottled-up rage and perturbed worry, less a man than a force of nature, a human id. This itself is something of an anti-biopic gesture – we are not only not meant to sympathize with LaMotta, but we don’t even need to empathize with him. The non-narrative nature of the film, which jerks around without much in the way of narrative flow or fluidity, also speaks to this deconstruction of the form. It is not about La Motta being throttled into a story and “overcoming a conflict”, flattened by the violence of narrative. It’s about the sheer fact of the guy, his presence on others, and how it will not be contained except by its own imploding, destructive energy.
LaMotta as hurricane-before-human is also linked to the other undeniable way Raging Bull very much challenges the central individualist ethos of the biopic genre: it is ultimately less about LaMotta as an individual than it is about him as a figure, a stand-in for a much larger group, the modern male. LaMotta’s story is one of a society that strives for guttural, primal violence as a measure of valor. As he rises through the ranks and gains national attention, Scorcese reveals the sport for what it is: a celebration of that which destroys, a celebration, ultimately, of violence. By contrasting this with LaMotta’s actions at home, revealing what happens to him when he is built up by a society which values this celebration of violence and then given no socially acceptable outlet for it, we see the consequences of this culture. We see what it does to men, women, and everyone around. We see how it creates an environment predicated on a dehumanizing, destructive atmosphere which makes humans its agents.
All of which is well and good, but Raging Bull is governed by raw, muscular filmmaking first and foremost, all fried nerves and jagged ends. No review of Raging Bull is complete without Robert De Niro’s enigmatic performance as the title character, a dehumanized piece of meat left out for too long. Arguably the crowning achievement of one of modern cinema’s finest American actors, this is a resolutely anti-movie-star role that puts De Niro through the wringer and allows him no outlet to emote or react to it. It’s a daring, demented, dangerous performance the likes of which the actor (nor anyone) has never since given again. Raging Bull is on his shoulders, and he carries it with bruised gusto.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that De Niro’s role is very much Scorsese’s physical construction, a meat bag most notable for how Scorsese positively torments the character during the reflexive boxing matches by doing an almost abstract dance around him, a piece of meat, there for the punching. Elsewhere, when things are more subdued, Scorsese intentionally, almost naturalistic-ally, holds the camera back and lets it linger on De Niro’s almost-accidental line readings and confused “what next” expressions in order to convey LaMotta as a deeply confused, lived-in figure who is notable precisely because he has absolutely no idea how confused he is.
Scorsese’s black and white cinematography, meanwhile, is note-perfect for this alternately abrasive and plaintive film, self-consciously molding this film out as classical Hollywood (especially in the fog-drenched boxing sequences) and then completely bludgeoning classical Hollywood gentility to death. LaMotta’s life is one of black and whites, primal urges without shades of grey. To him, he’s the hero, and everyone else is against him, and this film feigns getting us into LaMotta’s mind only to show us there is nothing there. The starkness of the color scheme drains the film’s palette as LaMotta has been drained in his own life. And Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is perhaps the greatest of any modern American film, perfectly matched in its overpowering Machiavellian terseness and clinical angularity to the rigidly grotesque life it explores. His is a guttural, psychotic existence, and this is a guttural, psychotic film to match, one where style and substance are in complete unison. It’s an angry, aggressive, explosive punch to the gut, and it lasts.