Million Dollar Baby (United States, 2004)
Warning! Beginning with paragraph #4, there are spoilers. Viewers who like virginal movie experiences should proceed at their own risk.
What a marvelous return to form Clint Eastwood has made following the disaster of Blood Work. In fact, one could argue that his two most recent films, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, have ushered in the most dramatically compelling phase of Eastwood's long career in front of and behind the camera. It's difficult to say which of these two magnificent films is more powerful - both left me stunned and haunted, and both evidence only the tiniest of flaws. Mystic River captured a place in my Top 10 list of 2003; Million Dollar Baby will find a spot on the 2004 roster.
Some movies, regardless of whether they are seen in January, June, or December, stand out as sure-fire candidates for end-of-the-year lionization. Million Dollar Baby is one such movie, and it would be a travesty if its storyline and performances (Hilary Swank's in particular) are passed over. By my reckoning, Million Dollar Baby is the second-best English-language feature released in theaters this year, and, as such, means that Eastwood deserves another Best Picture nomination. Here's a man who has finally put Dirty Harry to rest.
Three strong performances highlight Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are their usual, reliable selves. Each approaches the material with the practiced ease of a veteran, and the result is a pair of three-dimensional characters. But, in many ways, they're just supporting Hilary Swank. Since her Oscar-winning turn in 1999's Boys Don't Cry, Swank has appeared in a number of less-than-memorable films. Eastwood has drawn another great performance out of her, proving that the talent is there for a director who understands how to tap it.
Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a 31-year old woman who wants to box professionally. She approaches Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), hoping that he will train her. His response is curt: he doesn't teach girls, and, even if he did, she's too old. But Maggie is relentless, and she gains an ally: Eddie Dupris (Freeman), Frankie's long-time friend and cohort. When Frankie loses his job managing a potential heavyweight contender, he finds himself at loose ends, and, in a moment of sympathy, he agrees to help Maggie. Soon, under his tutelage, she finds herself on the fast track to a championship bout.
For a while, the film plays like a version of Rocky or Girlfight with equal focus on the trainer and the trainee. (Think of a Rocky where Burgess Meredith shares equal screen time with Sylvester Stallone.) There's also less glamorization of the ring activity than often occurs in boxing movies. For Maggie, winning isn't about fame and making money - it's about loyalty and earning respect. According to the voiceover monologue, "she grew up knowing one thing - she was trash." Boxing is her way to escape her past. And she remains true to her gruff coach, who spends his free time learning Gaelic and reading Yeats, and attends mass every day. When a hot-shot manager offers to take over her career and help her into the big time, she politely turns him down to remain with Frankie.
Had this been all that Million Dollar Baby represented, it would have been a solid motion picture: heartfelt if somewhat unremarkable. But the film takes an unexpected turn in its third act, and ends up asking some of the same questions posited by Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside (curiously, the films open the same weekend in the United States). Chief amongst these is the most painful: What shows more heart - to help a loved one to die with dignity, or to offer support to ease the pain of what they view as a valueless existence? Amenabar and Eastwood demand much from their audiences as they emphasize the difficulties of either path. The Sea Inside is probably the more accomplished of the two films, but Million Dollar Baby packs a greater emotional wallop.
One of the most impressive aspects of Million Dollar Baby is its scope, and the way it manages to pack so much into 2 1/4 hours. The story never seems rushed; Eastwood allows the characters and circumstances to breathe by including subplots featuring a mentally retarded would-be fighter (Jay Baruchel), Maggie's ungrateful and rapacious family, and Frankie's guilt-ridden past. If there is a weakness to be found, it lies in the sometimes cartoonish approach of Baruchel. But that sounds, and feels, like nitpicking.
I deem a movie to be worthwhile if I need time to recover after seeing it. Million Dollar Baby is such a film. It does not easily release the viewer, and it demands a time of reflection and contemplation afterwards. It is a rich and challenging motion picture that both affirms life and emphasizes its fragility. Eastwood touches our hearts and energizes our minds without resorting to overt manipulation. Million Dollar Baby is refreshingly free of the kind of tear-wringing melodrama that has become seemingly obligatory for this kind of story. You don't have to be a boxing fan to appreciate what Eastwood has wrought. This is a movie with the ability to win over all comers.
Million Dollar Baby (United States, 2004)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
Screenplay: Paul Haggis, based on stories from "Rope Burns" by F.X. Toole
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Clint Eastwood
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers