Million Dollar Baby touches on a sensitive social issue, but it’s no more about that than it is about boxing. It’s a small scale, slice of life drama that veers unexpectedly into tragedy, as life itself sometimes does.
Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, a boxing coach and former cut man (the guy who patches up fighters when they step out of the ring) who runs a gym tended by his best friend, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former fighter who lost an eye when Frankie failed to stop a fight in time. Frankie feels guilty about that, but then he feels guilty about a lot of things. As his parish priest tells him, "Any man who attends Mass every day can’t forgive himself for something." He certainly doesn’t find forgiveness from his estranged daughter. His letters to her are consistently returned unopened.
When Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress, turns up in his gym, determined to be a champion under Frankie’s tutelage, he’s not interested. But Maggie refuses to be discouraged. For her, boxing is the only ticket out of a life of poverty and defeat. She is self-described "trailer trash" from the Ozarks with a family of selfish rubes who care more about the money she earns than about her. Frankie reluctantly takes her on, and, sure enough, she has the stuff of which champion fighters are made, and proves it in a series of fights from which she emerges triumphant.
If this sounds like the plot of dozens of boxing films, you’re right, but what makes Million Dollar Baby better than the rest is the execution. Every scene, every line of dialogue in Paul Haggis’s screenplay (based on stories by F.X. Toole) serves a purpose, and Eastwood directs in the tight, lean manner for which he has been justly praised. Despite a running time of 132 minutes, nothing seems superfluous. With the aid of cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood also gives the film a noirish look that often makes you feel you’re watching a black-and-white movie. Best of all are the characters. These are people you care about, who’ve been knocked to the canvas by life but manage to keep on swinging.
Eastwood plays a variation on a role he’s played before, that of the gruff, wizened mentor, but as someone once said about art, it’s not how wide you go that counts, but how deep. Here, the 74 year-old icon goes deeper than he has in the past, and gives what is arguably his finest screen performance to date. Whether engaging in one of the several contentious conversations he has with his priest ("Have you got a minute to spare about the Immaculate Conception?"), swapping barbs with Scrap about the holes in the latter’s socks, or watching over Maggie as though she’s the daughter whose affection he craves, he’s a long way from the taciturn detective of Dirty Harry. (Eastwood also composed the film's spare, effectively melancholy score.) As always, Morgan Freeman never seems to be acting. He inhabits each scene naturally and effortlessly, as though he is the man he’s playing. As he did in The Shawshank Redemption, Freeman narrates, offering insights into the characters that they would be loathe to divulge themselves.
But the picture belongs to Swank. Feisty yet always feminine, she glows as Maggie, a determined woman who gives her all in the ring, but is compassionate enough to express concern about her injured opponent. The character has body and soul, as well as heart, and Swank embodies all three brilliantly.
Be warned, however, that this is no upbeat female take on Rocky. The picture takes a dramatic, unexpected detour in the final act that some conservative American media propagandists are condemning. By taking dialogue out of context, particularly Scrap’s final voice overs, they have accused the film of taking a controversial stance in a hotly debated social issue. One may not agree with the decisions the characters make, but it’s entirely believable that these characters would choose the paths they do. This is drama, after all, and Million Dollar Baby is a superb drama likely to keep playing in your mind’s eye long after the projection lamp goes dark.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks