Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Every year, a movie comes along that pulls on the heartstrings of an audience like no other. It’s usually a film that is controversial, unnerving or simply too powerful to really leave their collective psyche. As we begin a new year of cinema, it looks that this year’s crown will go to Clint Eastwood’s numbing boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby.
Eastwood stars as the gruff Frankie Dunn, a down-on-his-luck boxing trainer haunted by the demons of his past and an unresolved rift with his daughter. To alleviate his inner pain, he’s tried everything from writing letters to attending daily mass, all to no avail. Over time, this fraternal rift has made him a disconnected emotional cripple afraid of opening up and moving on with his life. His only confidant, Eddie ‘Scrap’ Dupris (played with sublime elegance by Morgan Freeman) is a washed up fighter who works at his gym, mentoring Frankie and the young fighters he cleans up after.
Frankie becomes even more disenfranchised when his best fighter leaves him for a bigger payout and a title shot. Despite shrugging it off as business as usual, it becomes obvious that Frankie is down for the count and becoming an even bigger emotional wreck. Something has to give and does when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into his gym and requests that Frankie Dunn train her to fight.
Calling this Theodosia, Missouri native ‘country’ would be an understatement. She has all of the stereotypical traits, the drawl, the unkempt look and tediously slow mannerisms of a white trash girl lost in the California Sun. From the onset, Swank gives the character a sense of desperation, weariness and hope. Maggie has been a fighter all of her life, clawing and scratching her way from nothing fueled only by her dreams of in-ring glory.
Her insistence on being trained by Frankie meets with skepticism and curt rebuffs. Nevertheless, she perseveres with her training, warming Scrap to her diligence and determination. After training Maggie on the side, they develop a bond of mutual respect and become fast friends. Scrap works on Frankie on her behalf and slowly melts away the ice, causing Frankie to agree to manage her.
Much to his chagrin, Frankie discovers that Maggie is bound and determined to succeed and nothing will stand in her way because beneath the veneer of toughness, raw talent and unshakable focus all Maggie really needs is for someone to believe in her. As her training continues she uses will power and a hard right hook to mature into a scrappy and successful boxer. She climbs the ranks and succeeds better than Frankie or Scrap could have ever hoped.
Maggie provides a much-needed breath of spring for Frankie. Her courage, drive and energy both frustrate and delight him. As the film progresses the rapport between the two becomes surprisingly gentle and sweet. Because Frankie is not Mr. Miyagi and Maggie is no Karate Kid, their relationship is bumpy and fraught with confrontation. Despite this, it becomes apparent that they need each other in mutually beneficial ways. Frankie is looking for successful, title-holding fighter and ends up with a surrogate daughter. Maggie is looking to find herself and winds up in a surrogate Dad relationship with Frankie. After some hesitancy, Frankie and Maggie learn the ropes and form a kinship that lasts beyond their successes and tragedies in the boxing ring.
Million Dollar Baby is a film about faith, friendship, hope and endurance that pulls no punches. Eastwood, a veritable jack-of-all-trades here, directs, produces, stars in and scores the music for the film, allowing him to put his own personal stamp (much like last year’s Mystic River) on the entire production. His use of shadow, music and dialogue shapes the film’s tone and connects with the audience. Although it’s funnier than you would expect it to be, Million Dollar Baby reaches inside of you by combining great performances from Freeman, Swank and Eastwood with intensely emotional character studies and accented by a sobering plot twist. Few films this year will go the distance and deliver as much exuberance, warmth and raw emotion