Movies like Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” should come with a caveat: “Warning: This movie will stay with you for weeks and months to come.” It’s an emotional and powerful film, the kind that hits you in the gut repeatedly and dares you not to take a dive in order to spare yourself more pain and suffering. At over two hours, the movie feels like an eternity — not because it’s long, but because of the emotional damage the movie inflicts on its viewer. It’s a heavy film, to be sure, filled with eternal darkness punctuated by bursts of raw exhilaration only possible when dealing with people who haven’t had much joy in their lives for a long while. Parts “Rocky” but all guts and uncompromising grit, “Million Dollar Baby” reveals a Third Act that will surprise, anger, and torture you. And through it all, you can’t — and don’t want to — look away.
Hilary Swank is Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor girl from the trailer parks who, according to the voiceover narration by Eddie (Morgan Freeman), only knows one thing — that she is trash. But even trash has dreams, and to that end Maggie seeks out the tutelage of boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). Frankie refuses, claiming that he doesn’t “teach girls”. Maggie is persistent, and after his prized fighter dumps him for another manager, Frankie reluctantly takes on Maggie. Together, they rise through the ranks, helped in no small part by Maggie’s natural boxing instincts and a will of iron that refuses to let her lose. Then, finally, Maggie gets the title shot she so desperately craves, but that’s when tragedy strikes.
“Million Dollar Baby” works on almost every imaginable level. There is only one nitpick, and it has to do with Maggie’s family. As portrayed here, the family is inhuman, so cartoonishly evil that for an instant you think someone has switched Eastwood’s movie with some clich’d, formulaic Hollywood garbage. Thankfully, the film’s visits to Maggie’s family are fleeting, as this is, if anything, the simple story of a girl looking for a father, and a father looking for a daughter. They find what they need in each other, mostly because no one else will take them. And when all is said and done, they were always meant for each other, and perhaps they’ve always known it the first time they saw each other, but just didn’t want to admit it.
Even with the wonderful script by Paul Haggis, “Million Dollar Baby” wouldn’t have worked without the perfect cast. And you couldn’t have asked for any better than Swank, Freeman, and Eastwood. There’s something so mundane and yet so incredibly fascinating about listening to Morgan Freeman narrate a story. As he did in “The Shawshank Redemption”, Freeman’s broken down ex-fighter, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, takes us through the movie from beginning to end. It’s only at the end that we realize the narration is part of a letter Eddie is writing to Frankie’s daughter, who has never answered any of Frankie’s letters, and who we have never seen. In many ways, the movie leaves us to wonder if the daughter even still lives.
It’s impossible to say enough good things about Hilary Swank, who should win the Best Actress Oscar, hands down. If she doesn’t, then there should be absolutely no need to hold such an event ever again, for it is simply unforgivable that Swank does not come home with a statuette. She is magnificent here. A warrior woman in the body of a girl, whose eyes burn with fire, and whose soul is filled with strength and courage the likes of which no man or woman can possibly fathom. It’s that overflowing spirit that allows her to steal half-eaten food at the diner where she works so she can save money to buy boxing gloves. It’s that same fiery belly that won’t allow her to give up until she’s grabbed all the things she’s always needed by the throat. Swank is, simply put, brilliant.
If Swank and Freeman were born to play their roles, then there was never anyone else for Frankie Dunn but Clint Eastwood. A former cut man who owns the gym that Maggie trains in and Eddie works (and lives) in, Frankie has reached the end of everything. Even so, he still has a taste for glory, and Maggie’s shockingly quick rise through the boxing world brings renew vigor to his formerly listless life. As she discovers self-respect and newfound pride, Frankie allows himself, for once, to bask in her glory. A boxing man who knows all there is to know about boxing, Frankie spends his days tweaking a high-strung priest, and his nights putting Maggie through the ropes. But despite all of Frankie’s teachings, it’s a toss up rather it’s Frankie who has made Maggie a better fighter, or if it’s simply her unwillingness to lose that catapults her from one victory to the next.
Although the performances by the triumvirate of Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman are at the core of “Million Dollar Baby”, it’s worth noting that this is probably the most visually accomplished movie of Eastwood’s directorial career. With the aid of cinematographer Tom Stern (who previously lensed Eastwood’s “Blood Work” and the award-winning “Mystic River”), there are uses of light and darkness in “Million Dollar Baby” that is stunning to behold. In particular the use of darkness, which seems to make up much of the film’s interior environment. The result of all this darkness is not morbidity, but rather an understanding that these are broken people seeking a way out. Their world exists in corners and shadows, but given the choice, they would not stay there.
I can’t say enough good things about “Million Dollar Baby”. Even if Eastwood fails to properly cast better actors for Maggie’s family, that’s a minor nitpick that is easily overlooked. And while the film’s Third Act is just heartbreaking, you’ll never have time to ponder why the film has taken such a tragic turn, because you’ll probably be too busy marveling at Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood. The veteran actor and the still (relatively speaking) newcomer exchanges blows effortlessly with smiles, jokes, and looks.
I’ll say it again: if Swank doesn’t win an Oscar for Best Actress, there is simply no reason for the Oscars to exist ever again. She is not that good — she’s that goddamn great.
Clint Eastwood (director) / F.X. Toole (stories), Paul Haggis (screenplay)
CAST: Clint Eastwood …. Frankie Dunn
Hilary Swank …. Maggie Fitzgerald
Morgan Freeman …. Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris