Movie Review
Million Dollar Baby


Director: 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

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Posted 01/19/2005 - 11:47:12 AM by beercan:
 You're certainly entitled to your opinion. But personally, I don't see how your utter dismissal of what is often rightly regarded as one of the best boxing movies of all time, Raging Bull, even remotely qualifies you as a candidate to review this film. Million Dollar Baby is indeed a very good film, but it wilts in comparison to Raging Bull or even (gasp) Rocky. That's more than can be said for Closer, though, which wilts in comparison to a morning spent doing push-ups under a truck. Too bad Scorsese didn't make it. Then your strange dissing of Marty's work could continue, and Closer would be a much better movie. Everybody wins! Ah, to dream...
Posted 01/19/2005 - 12:58:42 PM by Cletus:
 I love both Scorsese and Million Dollar Baby, but I have to agree with Dan that, at least to some extent, Raging Bull is an overrated film. I give that movie more points for technical skill than actual watchability, in contrast to, say, Goodfellas.
Posted 01/24/2005 - 08:39:04 PM by Hexagon:
 "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." Laughable. It's a character piece about a very violent child trapped in a powerful man's body. The most important scenes in the film have absolutely nothing to do with boxing and everything to do with Jake's relationship with his brother and wife. What's more, I would have thought any critic with half a brain might notice that Scorsese stresses how empty and meaningless LaMotta's life becomes as a result of the path in life he follows. Try to watch the film next time and not just openly dismiss it because it discusses a subject you have little interest in. It's a very ignorant attitude.
Posted 01/27/2005 - 12:06:18 AM by groupsmug:
 "Try to watch the film next time and not just openly dismiss it because it discusses a subject you have little interest in. It's a very ignorant attitude." What?! Look, I hate movies about football so much that I don't even think I could watch one, let alone maintain my end of any kind of meaningful discussion about it afterwards. Kudos to you, Dan, for overcoming subject matter you find unappealing to construct such a coherent, interesting and well thought-out FILM REVIEW. After all, Hex, that's what he was doing; reviewing a film. Not reviewing boxing.
Posted 01/27/2005 - 01:53:29 AM by Hexagon:
 Yes, my comment was on his flippant remarks about Raging Bull. It was poor criticism obviously influenced by his opinion of its subject matter. It's considered by many to be the greatest film of the 80s, and to dismiss it as 'wallowingly inarticulate' and 'without psychological insight' isn't just crap film criticism; it's factually wrong.
Posted 01/27/2005 - 02:16:35 PM by NickSouthall:
 Hexagon you're clearly insane if you can't tell the difference between fact and opinion. My day job involves working closely with a large collection of films, I watch a lot of films, I am friends with many peopel who have dotorate's in film making and the theory of film. I think Martin Scorsese is a rubbish director. That is an opinion, and, if I chose to, I could explain my reasons at length (I have done so in the past).

Saying that water boils at 100c is a fact. Saying that as soon as it boils it turns into treacle, is an incorrect fact. Dan's review, like everythign he's written for this site, is thoughtful, cogent, fluent and thought-provoking (providing that you as a reader aren't so blinkered by history and consensus and being seen to like what is "right" that you cannot form your own opinion).
Posted 01/27/2005 - 02:18:30 PM by NickSouthall:
 That totally looks like I can't type.
Posted 01/27/2005 - 05:57:51 PM by Hexagon:
 Wrong. Saying the psychological insight into Jake LaMotta's character is unconvincing is opinion. Saying there is none is just factually wrong. It's a long film, and the huge majority of it is dialogue between Jake and his wife or brother. Take the scene towards the end of the film when Jake is taken into custody for allowing underage girls into his club. His behaviour is bizarre; he starts punching and headbutting the wall, then sobbing on his prison bed clutching his fists. That's not psychological insight? What would you call it - a 'celebration of masculine violence'?
Posted 01/28/2005 - 03:57:55 AM by NickSouthall:
 That's NOT psychological insight, Hexagon, that's a movie scene in which an actor punches and headbutts a wall and then breaks down crying because that's what's in the script. Does anyone actually come along and explicitly say "this is the result of an intensely damaging Freudian "family romance" encounter as an infant, further emasculatiny his already eroded masculinity (due to perceived inferiorities in his physical form as child versus perceived strength and superiority of [emotionally distant] father) and causing him to over-compensate in adulthood by diverting emotional energies into enhancement of physical form and brutish, animalistic demonstrations of power over other males in order to assert himself as alpha male in any given group and thus stave off dissonent cognitive relapses into childhood vulnerability", or something equivalent? It's a long time since I've seen the film (and I didn't much care for it) but I don't remember anything of the sort. Any "psychological insight" you are getting is entirely inferred on your part, possibly from insinuations on the part of the director, actor, screenwriters etcetera (after all, that's their job). But just because you as a viewer of the film infer it does NOT mean that it is necessarily and explicitly there, and saying it is, is just laziness of thought and shows poor critical faculties. I think Scorsese is a nasty, brutish, joyless and arrogant film-maker, more concerned with his reputation and legacy perceived place amongst the "greats" of cinema (all, of course, completely arbitrary in their placing in the canon).
Posted 01/28/2005 - 04:02:32 AM by NickSouthall:
 And now I'll end that last sentence (I hate these little comments boxes because I can't properly see what I'm writing to edit it and keep track of where I am). More concerned with his legacy and place in the canon than in making films which are actually insightful or nice or enjoyable or which actually say something - he makes huge sweeping hints at meaning, at the semblance of meaning, without ever actually SAYING anything. He continually glamourises nasty, brutish things because he thinks that's what makes great cinema. He has precious little sense of humour. His characters are rarely believable. I have never once cared for a character in a Scorsese film. Also his films are boring in the way that anything very technically adept and more interested in its own scope and importance is boring. But this is just my opinion, and to label it as fact would be wrong.
Posted 01/28/2005 - 08:07:49 AM by Hexagon:
 "That's NOT psychological insight, Hexagon, that's a movie scene in which an actor punches and headbutts a wall and then breaks down crying because that's what's in the script. Does anyone actually come along and explicitly say blah, blah, blah". Subtlety's not lost on you, is it?
Posted 01/31/2005 - 01:07:10 PM by espoir:
 Dan, this is not your best work. This review reads: I hate boxing, here are some bits and pieces about the film, Hilary Swank is really good, here is a different film I really like, and here is another review of the film I dug up on the internet because I am not well-versed enough in the medium that I am commenting on, so I need to resort to cheap, inflammatory shots and other critic's writings to get my points across. As a boxer myself, I can assure you that the point of boxing is not macho posturing (since I am woman) and furthermore, the point to AVOID getting hit. Boxing is about confidence, stamina, mental fitness and pushing yourself beyond your own limits. And, it's sometimes about not having any other way to get out of the existence you are trapped in. Dan, there are numerous great boxing films - When We Were Kings and Girlfight are two examples. I am presuming you take your craft seriously and as such, you have a responsibility to do research for your writing, instead of just starting the whole thing off with a sweeping, sloppy generalization. Not only do you not understand boxing, you don't understand film either. To mock Scorsese in any way only further proves this. Scorsese is a maverick film maker who actually caused a paradigm shift in film making. You may not like what he does, but to not acknowledge his contribution is just plain silly. As for the film, I found it very moving and profound. I am not a Clint Eastwood fan (since the only role he seems to play is Clint Eastwood). However, this performance is fully-formed and likable - who knew he had a sense of humor? Yes, his direction is predictable at times (foreshadowing is obvious at least three times) but his sense of framing the actors is so unobtrusive, yet so lovingly and respectfully handled. I found myself reminded of Bergman several times (not to mention his use of natural light - very like Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist). Swank is, as you acknowledge, magnificent. I do think Freeman slightly mailed-in his performance, but in a way, I like that it allows Eastwood to really open himself up. On the whole, the film is a real masterstroke: beautifully shot, heavily emotive and wonderful performed. What the fuck else could you want? As for you Nick Southall, isn't there an ILM messageboard you should be off spewing your pseudo-intellectual jiz on?
Posted 02/02/2005 - 07:09:35 AM by Hexagon:
 "Boxing is about confidence, stamina, mental fitness and pushing yourself beyond your own limits." Nerds always look at sport with disdain; their pasty, frail bodies are incapable of meeting the demands of physical activity.
Posted 02/16/2005 - 08:00:19 PM by proffokker:
 This post admittedly comes waay after the fact, but I'm with the Stylus folks on this one. An opinion is an opinion. At the very least, I now feel like I should watch Raging Bull to see who (if anyone) is right. I can't speak on Scorsese's place in film history, but to challenge the quality of his work is not challenging his influence. And besides, I think that boxing is about macho posturing. Just because a woman participates does not change the masculinist framework that the sport was created in. I do believe however, that you (espoir) are changing the paradigm (to borrow your language) by being a boxer yourself. With regards to Hexagon's last comment, I have a question: why aren't you playing sports instead of wasting all your time (like me) posting on message boards? Besides, your contention that nerds hate sports becuase they're weak is exactly the kind of stupid macho posturing that others have mentioned on this board. Either you're a master of irony or just an idiot. And no, that isn't a false binary.
Posted 02/21/2005 - 05:17:53 PM by espoir:
 ah prof - you are wrong. women have been boxing nearly as long as men have. and i don't think anyone is saying you can't have an opinion - we just aren't agreeing with it. obviously i love million dollar baby because i love boxing. and at the risk of sounding high-minded about something so many consider base - boxing is gruelling. it is the most gruelling sport - bar none. and that is part of why i loved the film - it shows that. and if you really want to get down with it - aren't all sports macho posturing? be it basketball or baseball - the operative word is balls. and really - isn't all this messageboard posting, chest-puffing and bravado just another form of macho posturing? you lot just have the added comfort and protection of being anonymous. at least boxers show their faces. i am sure no one who posts here would have the guts to say anything like this to my face. not to mention meeting me in the ring.
Posted 02/23/2005 - 03:48:51 PM by proffokker:
 I'm sorry, I still think that boxing (for the men at least) is about killing the other guy. You can't score points with the judges until you HIT the other guy. You can't get a KO by dodging. Boxing does take balls, though. However, the fact that "balls" is called "balls" is rooted in patriarchy. It implies that Courage is linked to male (and not female)...members. It's a shame you missed the irony. Also, calling me a coward doesn't diminish the strength of my argument or bring any of its weaknesses to light. I freely admit that you would probably kick my ass in the ring. If I'm concerned for my bodily safety, and would avoid that situation, that makes me a prudent person. If it also makes me less of a man, then so be it. But you're right, message boards are merely a different breed of macho pissing contest, but it beats hitting someone (in a regular fist fight, I don't mean boxing in this case). Finally, you said that you love the movie because it's about boxing. So if this is true (and I'm assuming it is), you're saying your opinion of the movie is independent of any actual quality it possesses--it just needs some boxin'. Therefore, your opinion of the movie's craft (and Raging Bull's, for that matter) is devoid of anything close to an objective eye for cinematography, acting, etc. Returning to your whole knock on message boards (hypocritical in and of itself), I resent the very idea that my fists and my face should define me: "at least boxers show their faces."
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