Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Million Dollar Baby / **** (PG-13)

Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood
Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank
Scrap: Morgan Freeman

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Paul Haggis, based on stories from Rope Burns by F. X. Toole (Jerry Boyd). Running time: 133 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language).

Morgan Freeman’s character, Scrap, talks about the magical draw boxing still has on him early on in Clint Eastwood’s latest picture Million Dollar Baby, as having to do with seeing someone who has this dream that no one else in the world but themselves can see coming true. It seems this could describe the hopes that anyone pursuing any goal in life might have for himself or herself. Perhaps this universality of the hard choices made in life is what fills so many boxing pictures with the potential for greatness. But Million Dollar Baby isn’t really about boxing. What good boxing picture is? It is about love. Love in a harsh world where most people focus more on money and success than the most essential of human needs.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a grizzled old boxing trainer, who runs a broken down back alley gym (aren’t they all in these types of movies) and occasionally manages a talented young gun. Scrap (Freeman, High Crimes) is Dunn’s longtime partner and companion in the business and the life. The gym is lightly peppered with a range of boxing wannabees, from the all-heart and no talent Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel, The Rules of Attraction) to the potential title champion Big Willie Little (Mike Colter).

Dunn is also haunted by his past, both professionally and personally. He attends his Catholic Church services every week and makes a habit out of annoying his parish priest with theological debates that effectively wind up Father Horvak (Brian O‘Byrne, Intermission) and provide some comedic moments early on in the picture. In these exchanges with Father Horvak, Eastwood’s charms as an actor really have a chance to shine, as well as providing the director Eastwood with a counterbalance to his usual sobering look at his characters and situations.
But, like many aspects of this film, Dunn’s relationship with Horvak grows to have deeper meaning and provides the story with its most profound look into the soul of its hero. Eastwood’s scenes with O’Byrne span the hidden spectrum of talent this icon of film harbors beneath his gruff exterior and proves his Oscar nomination for the role to be well deserved.

So Dunn carries his demons, many of which remain unnamed, with him and as a result those few people he does let close to him, he protects, often beyond their own good. After hanging onto Dunn for two years longer than most boxers would, Big Willie Little finally has to move on to another manager for the sake of his prizefighting career. Without a gifted boxer to manage, Dunn feels he may finally be able to live out his life in boxing without anyone else to protect -- that is until Maggie finds her way under his skin.

Maggie dogs Dunn from the first moments of the story, begging him to train her in the sport. Dunn doesn’t train female boxers. “Girl tough ain’t tough enough,” he growls at her in the same tone his gunny sergeant from Heartbreak Ridge regarded his soldiers. But the tenacity with which Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), the actress who portrays her, seems to so naturally embody eventually wears Dunn down, and ultimately leads Dunn to respect her with the love of a close family member.

Maggie’s own family is presented as Missouri backwater trailer trash, without a care for Maggie until her success in the ring promises financial gain. Maggie’s attitude toward them is filled with the same innocence that drives her dream of becoming a prizefighter. After her first prize success in the ring, she buys her mother (Margo Martindale, The Human Stain) a house and surprises her with it. Instead of expressing her joy in Maggie’s success, she complains that now the government will take away her wellfare checks and almost delights to tell Maggie what an embarrassment her career as a boxer is to the family.

The Maggie who enters the boxing ring, however, is an entirely different person. She is a fierce fighter, fueled by her desire to rise above the station allotted her in life, who has a bad career habit of knocking her opponents out in the first round. Eastwood’s fight scenes don’t have the rigorous attention to detail as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. They don’t require it. The brevity with which Maggie dispatches her opponents prevents much meandering in the ring, but Eastwood is also presenting a much simpler world here than in Scorsese’s more flashy film. He did clear up one mystery for me about the sport, however. I finally know just what they are doing with all those Q-tips in the fighter’s cuts.

Along with the incredible anchor of Eastwood’s combined direction and performance, the character portrayals by Freeman and Swank are pivotal to the film’s success. Swank finds balance between so many different elements that go into her role, from that girl following a dream innocence that carries her into Dunn’s gym in the first place, to the desperation of someone with nothing, to that fierce aggressive drive that proclaims her success in the ring, to her good natured core that serves her loved ones, both appreciated and unrequited.

Freeman acts as the voice of the storyteller, giving narration as well as providing embodiment of the audience’s emotions in the character of Scrap. He sees the things that other characters don’t, offers the obvious advice when it is needed, and even provides a counterpoint to a much larger issue than is expected from a rather innocent set up. There is also an incident with the character of Danger where Freeman is allowed to step in with the wisdom and power with which he is so inclined to right a wrong for Danger and himself at once.

During the sequence where Maggie tries to share her newfound success with her family, Dunn’s actions give a hint as to the secret to Eastwood’s success as a director. When Maggie announces her plans to surprise her mother with the purchase of her house, there is the impression Dunn is aware of the disappointment this will bring her, but he doesn’t try to dissuade her from her good nature. When Maggie shows the house to her mother, Dunn just observes in the background, never intervening. This is a lesson Maggie must learn for herself, a lesson the audience is never sure she learns until a vital point in the plot. Just as Dunn does not get in the way of his pupil and her life, Eastwood as a director uses such a subtle hand, he never gets between the story and its audience. Eastwood’s will is never imposed on his audience; he is merely the guiding hand to the experience of this story. He is like a quite Zen Buddhist master, and we, as the audience, can only take away from his lesson what we bring to it, but he does give us something to think about.

Note: I would welcome any discussion on this film from anyone who has seen it. It has become a very hot button movie since its seven Academy Award Nominations, and offers a great potential for thought and discussion for reasons I am not willing to go into in my review. Had I seen it in time, it would have taken the top spot in my top ten list for the objective and classical delivery of its thought provoking subject matter.

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