Martin Scorsese’s biopic of the rage-fueled self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta is simultaneously painful and poetic. One of the most harrowing moments of the film comes near the climax when he is thrown in jail. The film perfectly captures the fruition of LaMotta’s inner conflict in this one scene.
Jake LaMotta is at his lowest point, he has finally hit rock bottom. Alone and imprisioned he is able to question and confront his life choices and behaviors. After cursing off the guards, he paces in the jail cell and tries to catch his breath. He puts his hand on the wall, and as the camera slowly moves in he starts banging his head against the wall nearly 10 times. He moves on to punching the wall tearfully screaming the word “why” each time he hits the concrete. Steadily at first, then faster and faster over and over as his screaming gets louder and more frenzied.
Then he sits, crying in pain from the punches. He admonishes himself for being so stupid, and heartbreakingly cries “They called me an animal, I’m not an animal. I’m not an animal.” Because at this moment he truly feels like an animal, trapped and confined in a cage where he is unable to be a danger to anyone else, as he has been all is life. He is the only one left he can fight. The raging bull is tamed and left with nothing else but to finally face himself.
The cinematography in this scene is stunning. His entire face is hidden in darkness, we see very little of him and can only hear his voice. He is shrouded in the shadows as if it uncomfortable for the audience to see him clearly. Such a vulnerable and devastating moment is too painful to watch and better peering in on than viewing nakedly.
Although many of us don’t quite lead the life of such violence and high tension as LaMotta did, there’s been times where all of us have felt like we were hitting a brick wall, making the same mistakes when we’ve sworn not to, doing something wrong instead of what we know is right. Whether we’re angry with ourselves or with life, we’ve all felt like violently breaking free of the confines we’ve found ourselves in. This scene not only does service to portray Jake LaMotta’s struggles, but also speaks on a human level by showing a type of despair that we’ve all felt at one point in our lives.
This is one of Robert De Niro’s finest work, demonstrating his much deserved Oscar win for the role. It is what I believe to be the greatest acting scene in film history. Watch it for yourself below. And better yet, watch the whole film for yourself. It’s a masterpiece.