Arriving in theaters on the tails of winning the Golden Globe,
the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Directors Guild Awards
for the year’s best achievement in directing, the iconic Clint
Eastwood has created an instant classic with Million
Dollar Baby. Much like he did with his multiple-Oscar-winning
masterpiece from 1992, Unforgiven, once again Eastwood
demonstrates that he knows how to dance around clichés rather
than embracing them. This is no Rocky or Raging Bull,
though those were great films in their own way. The fact is, Million
Dollar Baby isn’t really a movie about boxing. It’s
a film about suffering, redemption, hope, and friendship. Nothing
in the story’s finale is hinted at during the course of the
movie, and when the end arrives it hits you with the blinding power
of one of Muhammed Ali’s jaw-breaking left
hooks. MDB’s predictability quotient: absolutely
The story is small, its characters simple. Its haunting, spare
beauty is reminiscent of some of Europe’s best dramas, with
nary a whisper of a Hollywood sucker punch. In particular, Eastwood’s
moral questioning and complicated relationship with a young cleric
brings to mind the painful psychology of Ingmar Bergman.
The pace of the film may leave some audience members squirming
in their seats because they’ve been conditioned to sit back
and let filmmakers bludgeon them with breathless, rapid-fire editing
and loud, obnoxious sound effects. Thankfully, Eastwood, unlike
most directors (in Hollywood or elsewhere), lets his film breathe.
With moments of silence illuminated by faces in silhouette or cloaked
in shadows, Eastwood retreats to a distant neverland of classic
black-and-white cinema (though MDB is shot in color, it
has the feel of a old B&W film). Finally, the quiet beauty of
the film’s musical score (composed by Eastwood himself) adds
an effective layer of poignancy that might have suffocated under
the blustering orchestras of almost any other Hollywood drama.
Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a 31-year-old
waitress from the Missouri Ozarks who has come to California with
dreams of a better life, or at least one that doesn’t involve
bearing six children, getting fat, and eking out a welfare existence
in a trailer park with a lazy, beer-guzzling, wife-beater for a
husband. As she says in the film, boxing is the only thing that
makes her feel good about herself, the only thing that makes her
happy. She is determined to secure Eastwood’s grizzly trainer/manager
Frank Dunn as her personal coach to find her glory inside the ring,
even if Frankie can’t stand the thought of training a woman.
Swank, in ripping physical condition, is magnificent as the naive
but tough young boxer, and she should take home a second Oscar for
her heartfelt performance.
Playing opposite Eastwood like he did in Unforgiven,
the ever-magnificent Morgan Freeman inhabits his
narrator/buddy role like a pair of well-worn, comfortable shoes.
His voice lifts the story to heights reminiscent of the glorious
voiceover of his convicted felon in 1994’s The Shawshank
Redemption. Freeman’s Eddie “Scrap-Iron”
Dupris has some sort of complicated, unfortunate history with Eastwood’s
Dunn. But the banter between the two grizzled boxing veterans plays
out with a wisecracking warmth that adds yet another layer of entertaining
honesty to this character-driven drama.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clint Eastwood cry. Here,
his tears are so real, so affecting, that I paused to wonder what
motivation helped bring him to such deep, penetrating sadness on
camera. He’s a great actor in this film, surely the finest
performance of his legendary career. There is a moment late in the
film when the look on his face and the despair in his old eyes paralyzed
me with a kind of suffering reflection that I have rarely felt watching
a movie. Once again, it came unexpectedly, and it left me marveling
at the beauty of honesty, at the touching relief of reality in its
darkest, most human form.
—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett