Million Dollar Baby
There appears to be a special place in the hearts of movie audiences for the boxing film. The life of a pugilist offers incredibly fertile ground for a story involving overcoming every obstacle to win. These films also seem to have a better than average chance of garnering the coveted Oscar with such beloved films as ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Rocky’ and ‘On the Waterfront’. With ‘Million Dollar Baby’ a novel twist is added, the boxer rising from nothing is a woman. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a dark and brooding man, one at the end of his career way past any hope of happiness. He spends almost all of his time in the gym operated by his old friend and a former boxer, Scrap (Morgan Freeman). The pair has a long history, Frankie once trained Scrap Iron in his boxing days and now the pair has drifted into a mundane routine. The only diversion that Frankie appears to have is his daily attendance of mass, not so much for spiritual enlightenment but apparently to ague with the exasperated Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne). A major portion of Frankie’s angst is his estrangement from his only daughter, something that has left the man emotionally scarred and distant. One day a woman enters their lives, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), a thirty-one year old trailer dweller who wants to become a boxer. It takes a year of working around the gym to finally ware Frankie down so he will train her and help set up bouts for her. Although Maggie is too old to become a boxer she is determined to have more out of life than her job as a waitress can bring. There is a contrast between Frankie and Maggie. While Maggie is willing to take risks Frankie is overly cautious, dreading any advice that may lead his boxer to an injury. Part of the reason for this is explained in a wonderfully crafted scene between Maggie and Scrap, where he explains that he went blind in one eye during a fight with Frankie in his corner. Frankie has always blamed himself for not throwing in the towel to prevent the injury. Finally, Maggie is ready for a title bout with Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker). What transpires is well know by now; Maggie is seriously injured and involves Frankie with a major decision, whether or not to live.
Like most of the aforementioned boxing films this one achieves greatness and a place in such illustrious company by not being about boxing but rather focusing on the human beings involved in this sport. There is an emotional integrity here that few films can muster. This film presents seriously flawed human beings who together manage to support each other. The audience is pulled into this tale of human dissolution and despair and what a person will do in order to find some measure of redemption. By having a woman in the part of the wanna be boxer may seem like a gimmick but rest assured, it is not. Maggie displays a desperate need to do better in life, to rise above the hand fate has dealt her. Frankie needs to connect with Maggie and by doing so somehow make up for the daughter he alienated. Scrap is the perfect Greek Chorus, the narrator that fills in the audience forging an emotional bond between the characters and the viewers.
Many disabled persons groups have protested about the topic of euthanasia as depicted here. As a person confined to a wheel chair I can understand that the loss of movement is a drastic alteration in self perception. While many so afflicted do find there is life after paralysis unfortunately some feel that this is the end of any possible quality of life. While the decision made here is not one to recommend it does accurately show how some might react to this tragic situation. Films do not need to always show a happy ending, this film sets out to be an emotionally honest, albeit occasionally brutal, depiction of the character’s lives.
The cast for this film is without any doubt the best possible. Clint Eastwood is an actor, not in job description only, he lives his craft like few others have ever done. He is a man that has paid his dues in this field through bit parts, television and a stream of low budget westerns. Now, he has perfected his abilities to the point where his portrayals have an emotional impact greater than the force of any boxer’s punch. He plays Frankie as a misogynist, one that distains contact with women because of some untold break with his daughter. There is no compulsion here to fill us in on the details. Like the famous McGuffin of Hitchcock, the actual events that brought this man to this state matter only to the characters, not the audience. With such a powerful actor in this role Maggie had to be played by an actress of enough talent and fortitude to hold her own. This was found in Hillary Swank. She is perhaps one of the best American actresses of her generation, able to commit completely to her roles. She brings an integrity to Maggie that is a wonder to watch. In one scene where Scrap is relating how he lost his eyesight in one eye Swank remains completely motionless. Other actresses may have tried to grab some of the attention with reactions or body language but Swank has the confidence in her work that permitted her to turn the scene over to her co-star. It is this control that earned her a second, well deserved, Oscar. Morgan Freeman is one of those actors almost ensures a film will be excellent. As he did in The Shawshank Redemption he acts as the narrator permitting exposition in a concise and brilliant fashion. He wears the part of Scrap like a favorite pair of shoes, comfortable and used. He is the balance between two explosive performances.
It is almost a joke that every actor wants to direct and every director wants to act. Few have managed to become equally successful on both sides of the camera. Clint Eastwood is a living legend in film, able to direct, produce, act and even compose the score with equal brilliance. His directing style is as lean and focused as his body, not an ounce of waste is to be found. He doesn’t waste time with ancillary action; he is like a magnifying glass, concentrating the talent of his actors to the maximum emotional effect. Eastwood has an artist’s eye for staging a scene; there is nothing that doesn’t add to the realism. He knows when to take the reins and when to let his actors do what they do best. There is a rare clarity to this film, a forthright telling of a story that few films can provide. Even with such a difficult story to tell Eastwood never balks, never blinks and the result is the audience is engaged from the start.
Warner Brothers presents this film with the respect that it deserves. While light on the extras commonly used to sell a disc this film is worth having as is. While there are both pan and scan and 2.40:1 widescreen versions available do your self a favor and stick with the original aspect variation. Eastwood put a lot into the composition of every frame of this film; watch the version that shows every inch. The color palette is remarkable. While a bit muted this was done to heighten the emotions, visually reflecting the expressive performances. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is well balanced using the rear speakers mostly for ambience, reinforcing the action. The soundtrack written by Eastwood never overwhelms the film; it does what it should, enhancing the mood. This picture deserved the many awards that it garnered and deserves to be part of every collection.