Million Dollar Baby
2004Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
loathe boxing. Far beyond finding it tedious, I loathe the idea of contests based around causing physical harm and pain to others. I loathe the macho myth that there is any nobility, any raw power, or any value of any kind, in violence. [What’s more, I loathe boxing movies so much, I never watch them. Admittedly, I have seen Raging Bull. I dislike Scorsese in general, and this I despise. It’s as wallowingly inarticulate as its protagonist; it sees importance in the subject of aimlessly thuggish violence, without offering psychological insight or any examination, even any communication, of internal states; both narratively and technically it’s cripplingly self-conscious, and ends with a quotation.]
Million Dollar Baby (based on stories by F.X. Toole, whose name suggests he could have directed Van Helsing; thank you, I’ll be here all week) doesn’t shirk from the barbarity of boxing. It depicts, and sometimes confronts, the aspects that lead to my somewhat hysterical attitude towards the sport. Just as importantly, it cleverly sidesteps asking the audience to believe that boxing is a good thing. Instead, it asks you to believe that Hilary Swank’s success is a good thing, which is a far easier demand. Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald, is a 31-year-old waitress from a poor Missouri background. Her trailer-dwelling family are not, in my opinion, mocked as “trailer trash”. They are unsympathetic, but they are actual characters. Fitzgerald has an instilled sense of inferiority, and her body language, at least initially, is sullen and defensive. However, in consistently, determinedly asking Frankie Dunn (Eastwood, natch) to train her, she slightly paradoxically displays equally instilled confidence and self-worth. Swank’s brilliant performance projects all these dimensions, and she easily gains any sane person’s sympathy and respect. Her Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry, to my mind one of the very best films of its decade, was more than deserved, but since then, she’s often turned up in utter rubbish, most notably The Core (with the face of an angel and the eyes of a gun, lest we forget). It’s a joy to see her in another role of this calibre.
"That guy over there is Tuco, and he's trying to steal my gold. Go kick his ass, would you please?"
This is a strongly character-based film, and its story is told well enough in Eastwood’s recognisable style. Eastwood plays Frankie, a private, curt, emotionally distant man who refuses to train “girlies”. He has a standard quota of back-story. His estranged daughter returns all of his letters; he attends mass every day; he has a guilty secret of sorts. Fitzgerald’s father is dead. Naturally, for this sort of a film, a makeshift father-daughter sort of relationship develops between the two, much to Frankie’s surprise and all that. Eastwood is… well, he’s Clint Eastwood. His acting, wry and self-knowing from his beginnings in Sergio Leone’s immensely enjoyable ‘Dollars’ trilogy, is by now beyond parody. Morgan Freeman’s character Eddie Dupris, Frankie’s colleague, is also his not-very-secret; Dunn blames himself for Eddie’s loss of an eye in a boxing match (is ‘match’ right? how the hell should I know?) that should have been abandoned. Freeman puts in a Good Performance (see The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, indeed Unforgiven), not a Bad Performance (see Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, Deep Impact); that is, he’s a cynical and world-weary but warm-hearted older-man mentor to younger characters, rather than a submissive “negro” or a universally respected saint. Far more so than in the perceptive and articulate Unforgiven, in which both were outclassed by Gene Hackman, Eastwood and Freeman typically maintain a wry, detached, world-weary distance from the action. Freeman serves as narrator, offering pithy commentary on the characters and action much as he did in The Shawshank Redemption. Eastwood’s actual performance serves much the same function.
As a depiction of Fitzgerald’s success and relationship with Frankie, it’s basically good. Swank is excellent, a point I’ll reiterate again and again. Supporting characters are slightly weak. Genuinely infuriating is Danger Barch, a mentally challenged young man who inexplicably keeps attending the gym and randomly punching the air in the apparent belief that he’s a future prize-fighter. Utterly dreadful Hollywood representation of mental disability or mental illness? Who would have thought, eh? As an exploration of Weighty Themes it’s a Clint Eastwood film. This, too, is more or less a good thing. And at the risk of sounding excessively vague in order to avoid revealing major spoilers, the dramatic turning point that comes late in the film is handled with equal parts dramatic heft and technical expertise. So, too, are the subsequent explorations of guilt and loss, love and death, and moral choice that provide Million Dollar Baby its thematic spine. The combination of moral depth with tasteful understatement is a difficult one to achieve, but Eastwood more or less strikes the necessary balance.
Freeman bets Eastwood fifty dollars that he can make better shadow animals on the wall.
So what’s up? I searched reviews in order to help me answer this question, and eventually discovered this, from James Berardinelli’s website: “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.” Ah, that’s it. Like Mystic River, this is an extraordinarily weighty sort of a film, where dialogue is delivered slowly and with emphasis, complete with almost uniformly sombre palette and Eastwood’s somewhat drab score. Everything suggests a knowingly “important” film, the product of “experience”, and which, to quote someone else, “earns every emotional body blow it lands”. This style is manipulative, too, just better at hiding it—although not always; for example, it conspicuously conceals an important piece of information so it can be revealed at a moment of heightened emotion. And, well, I confess: in my callow youth, I prefer films that try to grab their impact when your defences are down or you’re looking the other way. This, at worst, just pummels you.
Million Dollar Baby seems to me like a shoe-in for Best Picture at the Oscars, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a masterpiece. It’s not even the best film I’ve seen this week; that has to be Closer, a savagely witty adaptation of the Patrick Marber play. It’s more or less a good film, though, despite Eastwood’s counter-productive attempts to make you think so.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2005-01-19