Million Dollar Baby
Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : Paul Haggis (based on stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear”), Brian O'Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Peña (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie's Manager), Bruce MacVittie (Mickey Mack)
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is hard-boiled with a heart -- a lean, modern film noir that places a touching surrogate father-daughter relationship among the inky shadows and crumbling walls of a fading corner of Los Angeles in which a bright light temporarily shines and leaves all those at its epicenter forever changed. It’s a film about forgiveness, acceptance, and, most of all, redemption, which are hardly themes characteristic of film noir, which usually focuses on despondency, existential despair, and loss. By placing an admittedly sentimental story in a hardened context, Eastwood makes it seem all the more genuine and touching – an emotional epiphany in the darkness.
The story takes place in the world of boxing, although it cannot be said that the film is in any way about boxing. Eastwood casts himself as Frankie Dunn, an aging trainer and cut man who is on his way out. Having lost his last protégé to a more aggressive fight promoter, he occupies himself by running his gym, the Hit Pit, which looks exactly as its name suggests it would. Frankie’s righthand man is Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who is now blind in one eye. Scrap narrates the film, alternately explaining the intricacies of the world of boxing and the interiors of the human heart, particularly Frankie’s. The warm cadence of Freeman’s voice, so familiar by now, adds a level of both fatality and reassurance to the film.
Frankie is approached one day by Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 30-year-old woman who knows that she was “born trash.” A waitress since her teens, Maggie is all too aware of how she is trapped on the bottom rung of the social stratum, and the only way she has found to feel good about herself is through boxing. Crucially, it isn’t the violence of the sport she relishes (she’s not a sadist), but the simple fact that she’s naturally good at it. She asks Frankie to train her, but he doesn’t “train girls.” She gets a membership to the gym, takes to calling Frankie “boss,” and finally wears him down with her resilience. She is eager, not to make a lot of money and a name (although she ends up making both), but to learn and better herself, something Frankie probably hasn’t seen for a long time.
Under Frankie’s tutelage, Maggie blossoms as a fighter, knocking out her opponents within seconds of the first round time and time again. Although we have precious little background information about her (or Frankie, for that matter), we get the sense that Maggie has spent much of her life alone, and part of the power of Swank’s performance is the way she embodies that loneliness and conveys the sheer joy her character feels in being part of something meaningful (this is, without doubt, Swank’s best performance since Boys Don’t Cry). Maggie’s determination is born out of her sense that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain, and it’s infectious, especially to Frankie.
As Maggie blossoms, so does he. The only thing we know about Frankie’s background is that he has a daughter from whom he is estranged and that he writes her a letter every week, each of which is dutifully “returned to sender.” Thus, there is a hole in his life, one that he has attempted to fill for the past 23 years by going to Mass every day. His priest tells him, “The only people who go to church that much are those who can’t forgive themselves for something.” We never learn what that “something” is, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there is a void and Maggie unexpectedly fills it.
One of the central themes in Million Dollar Baby is family. On the surface, it would seem to be about the brokenness of the American family – Frankie has been estranged from his unseen daughter for decades (we have no idea who the mother is) and Maggie’s family, the “trailer trash” whom she is alternately trying to escape from and heal with her own success, is alternately cruel and exploitative. Yet, the bond Frankie and Maggie create between them, much like the bond Frankie and Scrap have forged over the years, is itself a form of family that is in a way stronger than blood because it transcends the fated nature of genetic relations. The film’s noir undercurrent plays an unexpected role here, as it underscores the importance of conscious choice in the theater of our lives. Maggie seeks Frankie out and he eventually makes the decision to train her, thus opening up the possibility of their dual redemptions.
Cinematographer Tom Stern (who also shot Eastwood’s anemic thriller Blood Work and last year’s triumphant Mystic River) underlights much of the film, casting everything in a world of shadows and silhouettes. It’s an approach that’s both visually spare and emotionally intoxicating. The boxing sequences are appropriately exciting, not so much for the violence, though, but for the way they function as Maggie’s coming out – her moment to shine.
The script by Paul Haggis, based on the gritty stories by F.X. Toole, who was himself a longtime cut man in the world of boxing, is lean and sincere, even when the narrative trajectory shifts in final third, bringing the film to an entirely different level that allows for a moment of crucial decision making that leads to unexpected spiritual transcendence, the kind that stays with you for a long time. Million Dollar Baby is sad and may not lift your spirits, but it will definitely move them.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.