Review: Million Dollar Baby

The Thinker by Rodin

Clint Eastwood is not aging well. He face was weather beaten back in the 1960s and now it is a mass of cracks that make him look like his face is going to split apart. In Million Dollar Baby his voice also sounds like it is on its last legs. It is hard to hear what he is saying. He sounds like coarse gravel. Eastwood, for years an actor who played typecast toughs, now has enough money and clout to direct his own films. And he has proven he can succeed behind the camera as well as in front of it. The film Mystic River that he directed was one of the nominees for Best Picture in 2003. Now comes this movie, which seems to be trying to trump his last triumph.

Clint may play a tough but apparently he has a tender and almost effeminate side. Now that he can both direct and act in his own movies he has a safe space to step a bit beyond the stereotypical roles he usually inhabits. Here he plays Frankie Dunn, the trainer to many a prizefighter in his long career. At first blush he comes across as yet another macho, albeit aged character. Trainers of prizefighters don’t get into their positions without dedication, hard work and an appreciation for the violent world of boxing. It takes over two hours of cinema time before the layers of Frankie Dunn slowly pull back to reveal the tender and compassionate man beneath the bravado. And yet I get the sneaking suspicion that the real Frankie Dunn is not so much a character, but Clint Eastwood himself without the mask.

The gym Frankie owns is a depressing and apparently very poorly lit place. No Gold’s Gym here. You can almost smell the grime and sweat. An ex-fighter that Frankie befriended, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) actually inhabits the gym: he has a cot and a TV in the back. Eddie and Frankie go back decades. Eddie narrates much of the film, but it seems unnecessary. The story is clear enough without the narration. It is fine to see two top actors like Eastwood and Freeman working together in a movie. Either one could make a mediocre movie shine. Together you know the movie will be a good one.

Pretty much every drama has to have a woman. The woman in this movie is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress in her early 30s from trailer park trash someplace in Missouri. She nonetheless aspires to more than growing old, fat and dysfunctional. She eventually decides she wants to take up boxing as a solution to her aspirations to get beyond being a waitress all her life. She spends months trying to convince Frankie to take her on as her coach. Of course Frankie eventually agrees, otherwise there would be no movie.

The rest of the movie splits into two parts. Part one has to do with their increasingly intimate yet father-daughter like relationship between Maggie and Frankie as Maggie’s career takes off. Maggie needs the father she lost early in her life and latches on to Frankie. Frankie, who was long ago estranged from his own daughter to the point that his letters to her always come back refused, needs to be a nurturing presence. Maggie makes an agreeable substitute daughter. Invariably Maggie’s career reaches a zenith and there is a fall. I won’t get into the details of the fall so I don’t spoil the movie for you. But it’s a big fall.

Part two is the relationship between Maggie and Frankie after her fall. Adversity only draws them closer together. It causes the last parts of Frankie’s armor to quickly come off. In the process his metamorphosis is complete. By this point Maggie is divorced from her family. She has nothing left meaningful in her life except Frankie, her new father. And like every father Frankie wants what is best for his girl.

Hilary Swank does a top-notch job as Maggie Fitzgerald. Her performance has already been noticed as worthy of a best actress nomination. I think she could well be a contender, but there are lots of other movies in the last year with very talented actresses. So we clearly have a combination of fine acting and directing talent. In addition the cinematography captures in shadows the extreme personal anguish the characters move through. This is not a beautiful movie. It is deliberately full of dirt, blood, shadow, and agony. But we learn that sometimes in the roughest soil that beautiful flowers can grow.

So those hoping for a female version of Rocky will be disappointed. This is not Rocky. For all its appearances it is not even a movie about boxing. It is a movie about relationships and the painful choices that have to be made during life. Like The Cider House Rules it reminds us (and a Catholic priest drives in the point, in case you don’t get it) that life can be full of squishy moral choices. So it is at times a tad overbearing. However the acting and direction are so good that it is easy to overlook these minor flaws.

As good a movie as it was, I felt it fell into stereotypes on occasion and was a little too transparent. It is a movie definitely worth seeing but falls a bit shy of my criteria for a great movie. So it gets a 3.2 on my 4.0 scale. It’s not worth a million dollars, but it’s probably worth more than what you pay to see it. And that’s something.