Thirty minutes into Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta is too damn creepy. Despite being married, he’s horn-dogging a blond 15-year-old, and he has nothing to say except “Come closer” and “Sit here.” No connection is sought; dude just wants to fuck.
At that point I’m so grossed out that I wonder whether Raging Bull, released in 1980, might simply not rank among Martin Scorsese’s best movies. I wonder if it lacks the crazy, kinetic propulsion that makes Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street such fun rides. I wonder if Rocky is better.
Nope. You just gotta learn to live with the dog. Get over wishing LaMotta weren’t so bad and Raging Bull becomes a masterpiece. “Was I really like that?” the real LaMotta asked his wife (says IMDB.com) after seeing the movie. “You were worse,” she said, which is nuts because Scorsese and De Niro’s LaMotta is despicable. Obsessively jealous and violent, he cheats on his wife and even punches her. He goes to jail and deserves it. “I’m not an animal,” he weeps behind bars, after battering his head and hands into the wall. He kind of is an animal, though, which makes him more human than most movie heroes, and certainly more human than most sports movie heroes. This is what it looks like when the monster inside a man drives.
In the ring, he stands with his arms down, taking Sugar Ray Robinson’s best punches, again and again, punches so hard they splatter blood on the judges and disfigure LaMotta’s face. LaMotta loses that fight, like he so often lost in life. But, as he boasts in a delightful display of poor sportsmanship, “You never knocked me down, Ray.” Same as in life: As powerfully as the bull raged inside, and for all the terrible places it took him, he stayed up.
Rocky has a clean arc, culminating at The Big Fight. Raging Bull is different, more art than entertainment, a perfect portrait of a flawed human fighting his own raging nature. It’s a harsh, insightful experience, and one of the greatest films ever made.