As part of an ongoing summer campaign to catch up on the all-too numerous pop culture landmarks I’ve somehow missed over the years, I recently found myself watching two of Scorsese’s most famous movies, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, within the span of a couple days. While both fantastic films, neither would top my list of Scorsese’s best. But with all the acclaim Raging Bull gets, it would have to be damn incredible to outmatch my expectations.
As a boxing film, I think I prefer the story of Rocky more. Stallone’s original manages to capture something special about boxing as a way of life. It draws in the 70s culture, and admirably balances the sad state of urban decay with Rocky’s heart and clumsy romance. But Raging Bull is an altogether different movie — after all, it’s based on a real man, a real story, and has a narrower focus. And for the first time in a long time, it made me appreciate what an amazing actor De Niro is. So when I was going into Taxi Driver, an idea was already crystallizing in my mind. I wondered: would Travis Bickle disturb me more than Jake La Motta?
Few biographical films can match the intensity of Raging Bull. Of course, few biographical films are directed by Martin Scorsese — but the cinematography, editing, and sound work during the boxing matches are absolutely incredible, creating this sharp, powerful edge that goes beyond the typical heavy-handed (no pun intended) sound effects of Hollywood brawls.
Still, as impressed as I was with the filming, De Niro’s acting undeniably deserves even more praise. His portrayal of Jake La Motta had to be one of the most realistic — yet inhuman — performances I’ve ever seen. He seemed all too believable at times, which was what made La Motta’s madness so difficult to watch. In one moment, he clearly adores his wife and cares deeply for his brother. In another, he stands in the ring, absorbing blow after blow as blood and sweat fly from his body, daring his opponent to continue, enjoying it. I haven’t seen too many depictions of masochism in movies, but unlike Bill Murray’s hilarious bit part in Little Shop of Horrors, De Niro’s masochist is chillingly insane.
The way De Niro captures La Motta’s calm moments really highlights his shocking ones. And as the film goes on, it’s not just the pleasure he pulls from violence that eats away at you — it’s his constant, neverending jealousy and insecurity, which builds and builds until it’s clear something is seriously wrong with him.
That’s about where Travis Bickle comes in. Maybe it’s because Taxi Driver dips further into extremity than Raging Bull, or maybe it’s because I already knew more about the film’s main character, but I actually found Travis to be less disturbing than La Motta. What’s interesting is how well De Niro plays crazy, but in completely different ways. Travis is obviously unbalanced and deranged from the very start — he can barely relate to other people, suffers serious insomnia, and harbors a volatile anger that he gradually feels right in letting loose. That he plans to die by story’s end indicates he simply can’t cope with the world — or how he sees the world, anyway — and has to simply mark it with destruction before leaving for good.
Given that Taxi Driver is fiction and Raging Bull is grounded in history, saying Travis is more of a character than LaMotta may seem pretty obvious. But it’s true. And what’s scarier to watch — a homicidal madman, only a step removed from serial killer territory, or a man subtly coming apart as his life progresses, who thrives on pain and slowly self-destructs, both in his personal life and his career?
Yeah, I guess both of them are pretty disturbing! For my money, LaMotta is the true madman, and De Niro deserved his Oscar. Maybe it’s time I watched Cape Fear.