Within the first images of Raging Bull, we view Jake as an isolated, melancholic figure. The romantic opening credits characterize him as a graceful, solitary man, while the the second introduction to Jake, where, as an overweight, washed-out has-been, he practices his stand-up comedy lines (which also functions as the film’s ending), depicts the pity of his frank loneliness. Alienation reflects how Jake’s internal struggles destroy the relationships around him. Jake’s arrest follows the collapse of his marriage with Vickie and relationship with Joey; so, when he spends time in his dimly lit jail cell, nobody can comfort him, and he is left alone with his worst enemy: himself. The solitary confinement forces Jake to confront his own insecurities and primal instincts, which results in him violently smashing his head against the wall and trying to convince himself that he’s not an animal. Scorsese, therefore, shows how the inability to reconcile and articulate one’s inner conflicts eventually spirals into a destructive, disturbing isolation.
The possibility of Jake finding redemption permeates Raging Bull. Jake is a vile character, but Scorsese portrays him with Biblical imagery of redemption in the second half of the film, thereby suggests his worthiness of salvation. During Jake’s last fight with Robinson, his trainer offers Jake his mouthpiece while making the sign of the cross, as if the mouthpiece were a communion wafer. Later, Jake passively awaits his punishment on a rope, which shares striking visual similarities to a crucifixion. When Jake sits in his jail cell, the literal darkness engulfs his body, with an exception of one glimmer of light illuminating his shoulder; this image reinforces a hope for Jake’s atonement. The film’s final title card—the Bible quote “Once I was blind and now I can see”—implies that Jake has new, profound awareness of his past sins, and he can move forward and find salvation.
Throughout the film, Jake demonstrates his capacity for masochism: he bullies Joey into hitting him bare-fisted in the face, he encourages Robinson to savagely beat him in the ring, and he pours ice water down his pants to deny himself sexual gratification. Jake’s masochistic tendencies stem from his need to assert his own dominance, control, and authority; but, more importantly, they stem from his self-hatred. Jake is his own worst enemy, and his willingness to endure severe pain illuminates how he perceives himself. Jake believes he deserves to suffer to atone for his sins (his treatment of Vickie and Joey, his extreme sexual jealousy). Instead of explicitly apologizing for his wrongdoings or working on self-improvement, Jake punishes himself. It’s a weak, pitiful response—but one nonetheless emblematic of Jake’s moral character: he can only express himself through violence and pain.
Jake distrusts everyone around him, including his own wife and brother. Jake’s obsessive suspicions about Vickie’s infidelity evolves into his impotence and a disconnect in their marriage. Joey asserts that his fight with Salvy at the Copacabana had little to do with Jake or Vickie, but Jake refuses to take his brother’s word, saying, “I don't trust you when it comes to her. I don't trust nobody. Now tell me what happened.” His distrust of others and his paranoia culminate in ludicrous claims, vicious attacks against Vickie and Jake, and permanently estranged relationships with those closest to him. Thus, Scorsese highlights how distrust can lead to an indefinite, torturous, and self-inflicted alienation.
Violence casts a looming presence in every scene of Raging Bull. Take the opening scene: a washed-up Jake finishing his stand-up routine with a half-hearted "That's entertainment!" cuts directly into a shot of Jake the boxer, 20 years before, enduring two hits to the face. Right from the start, Scorsese condemns America’s pervasive penchant for violence; he also scrutinizes domestic violence throughout the film. Unable to articulate his conflicts and rage, Joey resorts to violence as an automatic response to his anxieties, both in and outside the ring. When Jake suspects Vickie and Joey of having an affair, he attacks them both. After Vickie innocuously comments that Janiro is “good-looking,” Jake projects his enraged sexual insecurity onto his opponent and disfigures him. Joey similarly uses violence as an outlet for his own frustrations, as illustrated by his brutal fight with Salvy and his threats toward his son. Clearly, violence pervades the LaMottas’ personal and professional lives. By illuminating the gruesome consequences of this male aggression, Scorsese criticizes the use of violence a form of expression.
Throughout Raging Bull, Jake displays sexual anxieties. Cognizant of Vickie’s beauty and allure, he fears that he’s not sexually adequate enough to have a relationship with her. When Vickie exploits Jake’s sexual insecurities (“His [Joey]’s cock is bigger than yours [Jake’s]!”), Jake furiously beats her—a projection of his own dissatisfaction with his sexuality onto his wife. Jake’s fervent sexual jealousy of Vickie’s casual and harmless interactions with other men, paired with the film’s constant references to homophobia and anal sex, amounts to a conflicted, guilty sexuality within Jake.
Jake associates masculinity with aggression, violence, and control, and he demonstrates this limited understanding of gender both in and out of the ring. Jake constantly feels the need to assert his hyper-masculinity: he laments his “little girl’s hands” and then bullies Joey into hitting him in the face to suppress his feminine features and assert his tolerance of pain—and masculine authority by extension. Jake, it seems, cannot process his emotions. He never truly expresses what he feels because he fears that this honesty will undermine his masculinity. Instead of telling Vickie that he’s afraid of not being sexually adequate enough for her, he resorts to violence—the beatings of her, Joey, and Janiro—to express his insecurities and fears of losing her to other men. Jake uses his fists outside of the ring to punish others and himself, communicate his inner demons, and solve his problems. By illustrating how Jake harms himself and others, Scorsese illuminates how toxic hypermasculinity can forever damage a person’s communication skills, relationships, and notions of self-worth.
Raging Bull Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Raging Bull is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.