Winner '04:
First Saw It:
Million Dollar Baby
December 21, 2004, at the Angelika Film Center in New York, NY
Bridesmaids: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways
My Vote: Million Dollar Baby, in a first-round TKO
Overlooked: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Maria Full of Grace, Before Sunset

Million Dollar Baby
Top Ten List: #8 of 2004 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #5 of 2004 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Anthony Mackie, Mike Colter, Brian F. O'Byrne, Lucia Rijker, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Marcus Chait, Bruce MacVittie, Michael Peña. Screenplay: Paul Haggis (based on stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole).

Photo © 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures
"Boxing is an unnatural act." So we are instructed, more than once, by Scrap, the narrator and deceptively sage bystander played by Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood's boxing drama Million Dollar Baby. Scrap is full of aphorisms about boxing, which don't contradict each other so much as they highlight different facets of the sport. It is directly to the point of the movie that these diverse and frequently dark homilies are all more or less true at the same time, though not one of them quite encompasses the film's full view of boxing, or indeed the film's summary view of anything. "Anybody can lose one fight," Scrap intones, also on more than one occasion; along the same lines, but with broader implications, he tells us that when a contender is hopelessly cornered or dazed or overmatched by an opponent, "Sometimes there's just nothing you can do." Then again, "If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance; it's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you." As a character, Freeman's Scrap is an unlikely mix of fatalism and an almost mystical optimism. Thankfully, the actor's tremendous and by now familiar gifts for conveying gravity and an almost portentous reticence keep Scrap from being a colorful sidekick, a mooning commentator. Even when his narration veers toward prolixity (and I am hardly one to argue with prolixity), Scrap knows more than he's saying about this sport which has shaped his life—he himself was a force in the ring some decades ago, before a single, brutal contest cost him his career and his right eye. The lines in Freeman's face and the low tones in his voice, even lower in his voice-overs than in his dialogue scenes, constantly imply that what he isn't saying springs from a wisdom even more bruised and beaten than the maxims he shares with us, and with a specific audience within the film whose identity only gradually emerges.

Scrap provides our way into, through, and out of Million Dollar Baby, even though (or maybe because) he is a surprisingly peripheral presence within the main action. Not crucially involved in the principal narrative, but not uninvolved either, he embodies the strange kind of intimate, even plaintive detachment that has been the paradoxical tone of so many of Clint Eastwood's films. In Unforgiven, in The Bridges of Madison County, in Mystic River, and now here, Eastwood immerses himself in a regional milieu and a discrete, nearly encapsulated human community that inhabits and even typifies these milieus. That Eastwood's movies tend to privilege outsiders as the central figures in his stories—semi-retired gunmen, a foreign-born farmwife and her secret lover, semi-retired mafia men, semi-retired boxing coaches—already suggests the throat-catching melancholy that anchors these films. These protagonists are almost inevitably reabsorbed into the networks and conflicts they had formerly or unsuccessfully renounced, and the price to be paid for the renewal of group membership is usually quite steep. Maybe that's why Eastwood's camera and visual style, never exactly tentative (indeed, he could sometimes stand to be more tentative), are still a few paces removed from where you'd expect them to be, especially as the stories' swerves into pathos seem to encourage a purer sentimentalism. Who else would base a whole movie in the maiming of a hooker and relegate her to near-silence and near-invisibility as the drama of avenging her pain transpires among people she only tangentially knows? Who else would shift the point of view in Bridges onto the more reserved character—simultaneously a shift away from Eastwood's own performance—and then interrupt the unfolding of torrid passion with an almost willfully mundane framing device where the children of the protagonist haltingly consider everything that they, and we, are learning?

This posture of Eastwood's is never purely stylistic. The firm aesthetic distance that he takes from his subjects, pushing back about as far as he can before losing the emotional threads, actually allows the films to be about things they wouldn't otherwise be about. It isn't as though he renounces his overt objects of focus in favor of something more obscure or, god forbid, abstract. Again, we echo Scrap: "Step back too far," he advises the athletes in his midst, "and you ain't fightin' at all." But Million Dollar Baby, which is second only to Bridges as the strongest of Eastwood's latter-day tragedies, is never simply about the grizzled trainer and gym-owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), the doggedly hopeful new arrival at The Hit Pit who's determined to have a run at a title, and determined to do it with Frankie's help. Million Dollar Baby, like all of the Eastwood pictures I've mentioned, really transpires in the middle distance between these characters and the audience, and even between these characters and the people onscreen who are their inscribed audiences. The shots are framed so that we are assessing space, temperature, and relationships as much as overt action. The evolving themes of the film emphasize the bonds between these characters and the ethical weight of those bonds, more than they emphasize individuals per se; this isn't an obvious route for a movie that on the surface looks like yet another fable of a rare bloom who bucks the system of a chauvinist sport. Besides, if Million Dollar Baby is about any one person, it's about Frankie, the "one man" Scrap has ever met that he "wouldn't want to fight," but even Frankie is meaningless, empty within the terms of this film, except in relation to the woman he comes to know, the sport he attempts to nourish, and certain higher powers to which his professed indifference is a well-concealed act.

You quickly register the faces of Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman, especially since each actor is fundamentally reprising a character type we already associate them with (the grizzled survivor, the headstrong underdog, the baritone conscience of the group), and even more especially because the deep chiaroscuro lighting by Tom Stern favors strong, tight, almost tangible close-ups that lend instant potency to the actors and the tale. Even with such iconic figures in the frame, however, it's curious how Million Dollar Baby swiftly and effortlessly coaches us to pay attention to the images more than the actors. Has any gym looked this dingy since the ones in John Huston's Fat City, the boxing film Eastwood's most resembles in tone and outlook (and a pinnacle of the genre that deserves being aspired to)? The lighting here would be dark even for a lot of noir films; when first Scrap and then Frankie begin coaching Maggie on the outside edges of the gym, both men are photographed so that their heads and chests are totally swallowed in darkness. Even the arena where Maggie first meets Frankie, after a key victory for his top-dollar boxer Big Willie Jones (Mike Colter), seems to have been doused in squid ink. Maggie walks in from the almost Stygian black of the stadium corridors, a kind of looming void that sets an irrevocable tone for the picture, even as Swank's amply engaging, more than proficient but unprofound performance seems designed to alleviate all the gloom. And even then, Swank's Maggie is a dreamer but a tough and undeluded one. The film's relation to ringside glory remains almost perversely unglamorous. You might miss the moment when Big Willie, after dropping Frankie as his coach, wins the national title, since Eastwood confines the fight to a tiny television screen in his own catacomb of a living room. About an hour into the movie, after Maggie signs on for a major fight in the United Kingdom, the only thing Eastwood metes out by way of transition is a three-second, silent aerial shot of Big Ben at dusk. As per his custom, Eastwood is much more interested in letting human behavior and local atmosphere inside the arena establish the cultural frame, and as in all of Million Dollar Baby, the crowd shots here are simple and terrific. The extras are unevenly littered about the space, with real breathing room to laze and shift like actual people, and they seem to be drawn in by the fights but neither fully absorbed nor over-directed. These are not the assembled fanatics of most sport movies, even when Maggie becomes something of a phenom; they are people who scraped it together to buy a ticket, or simply sidled up to the ringside bar. They could be De Sica characters, and they don't so much suit the film's modest register as they help to set it. Even when Maggie seizes her climactic chance at glory in Las Vegas, the film omits any celebrity cameos in the audience, or (amazingly) a single obligatory shot of glittering casino fa?ades or neon-lit colonnades.

Again, the terse stylistic approach augurs a philosophical one. For Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis, the sport of boxing is hardly a progression from title bout to title bout. Yet another of Scrap's orienting soup?ons reminds us that most boxing gyms in America lose money. As we meet the improbable gaggle of runts and aspirants at The Hit Pit—the futureless trash-talker Shawrelle (Anthony Mackie), the dismally scrawny Danger (Jay Baruchel), even the overage and under-trained Maggie and the almost vestigial Scrap—we gather that Frankie's gym is actually a kind of holding zone for under-resourced, unprotected souls who really just need a place to go. The destinies of these characters are virtually spoken for, in unpromising ways. (By contrast, it is clear that Big Willie really does need to fly this particular coop in order to court real success.) Stern's camera moves around in The Hit Pit in the same rangy, unpredictable, but ultimately confined way that the characters do; the pans and dolly shots are elegantly choreographed but what they capture is the essential listlessness of this airy, high-ceilinged space, where the office is a little too small, and Scrap's nook-cum-apartment is clearly a modified closet, but the gym floor itself looks almost desperately extended, like it was meant to be a warehouse and was only turned into an athetic facility by really spreading everything out. Boxing is an unnatural act: it's a dream and an outlet for people who are hoping that the rootlessness of their lives is not a permanent consignment. It lends strength, elegance, and range of motion to lives that are nonetheless depressingly static, at least in most cases. If these boxers are beating back anything—and make no mistake that this is a dark film, in every sense—it's those impenetrable shadows that proscribe the frame, so rigidly that Million Dollar Baby sometimes recalls a silent movie where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune play out in a concentrated circle of light that goes opaque around the edges.

In visual terms, the light-and-shadow interplay within The Hit Pit finds its polar coordinates in, on the one hand, the sepulchral gloom of Frankie's and Maggie's apartments and, on the other, the disconcerting open-air gleam that surrounds the church where Frankie acts as gadfly to a frustrated and ill-tempered priest. Ironists will note that this holy ground which Frankie treats like a punchline is actually an oasis of light and warmth while the spaces that appear to sustain him are visually stifling and morbid. All of these dualities will be important for the picture, as they transform and interpenetrate in revealing ways. The chromatic war of light and dark, with each side drawing closer to the other, crystallizes the dynamic of the film overall, without flattening the movie into some kind of cosmic allegory. (The Silence has already been made, thank you.) When Frankie comes to face the greatest spiritual crisis of his life, the church has no lambent rays of sunshine or holy wisdom to offer him. Instead, the nave of the church has almost been pulled, as though by the black hole of Frankie's life, into the blue/black palette of the majority of the film. Religion becomes an active force in the film by getting down in the muck where its congregation actually lives, needing it. Eastwood's taut scenes with O'Byrne recall Brando's with Karl Malden in On the Waterfront, laced with even more ferocious questioning and dismay.

The other reason that the overdetermined, almost elemental darkness of Eastwood's images doesn't cramp or squander the narrative is that it serves a dramatic purpose: whatever the odds against her, and whatever our intimations of how Eastwood's worlds generally work, Maggie Fitzgerald makes a great run against what we might call the dying of the light. She knows she's a little long in the tooth to be doing what she's doing, and it doesn't bother her. The lack of glitz in Eastwood's film doubles as a character point for Maggie: the whole film is designed to privilege diligence over dazzlement, and it progresses in the same steady, sure strides that she does. Look at what happens when Big Willie arrives in the gym and Frankie and Scrap get into a typical, half-friendly quarrel about how Frankie is coaching (or not coaching) his star client. The scene doesn't seem to be about Maggie at all, but there are two quick cutaways to her as she's watching the action while attempting to master the speed bag Frankie has grudgingly ceded to her. In the first of these shots, Maggie's fist misses the speed bag as she looks away at the more obvious action that also absorbs our own attention; in the second, she keeps connecting with the bag even as her curiosity once more pulls her attention back over her shoulder. Eastwood is not above including the standard athlete-is-born training montage a little later on, but surreptitious grace notes like this one, which don't even reveal themselves until a second viewing, help to account for one's sense that Million Dollar Baby is both a tiny story and a big one at the same time, that it is somehow cradling and nurturing all of its characters even as the plot's pendulum swings back and forth among the three leads. The major crises and life-swings that these characters will face, and that the audience will be asked to face with them, are subtended by these subtler shifts and nuances.

None of this means that Million Dollar Baby is without its missteps, even some flagrant ones. Eastwood practically ruins a withering cameo by Margo Martindale as Maggie's mother by hauling Margo and her vulgar brood back into the film at an especially brow-beating moment. To push these performers toward caricature and then go in for the kill with a tracking close-up of their garish, touristy T-shirts violates almost every principle of economy, irony, and judiciousness that otherwise characterizes the movie. The hoary device of Frankie's absent daughter, returning all of his letters from somewhere off-screen, is much too literal a plot device, recalling that even more embarrassing business with Kevin Bacon's long-distance wife in Mystic River. It's a shame that Eastwood can't always attend to these tertiary characters and expository details with the same confidence and finesse that imbues the central material. Haggis' script floats a powerful and revealing question—what exactly did Frankie do to this girl that's prompted such fierce rejection?—but the way Eastwood films these scenes tends to diminish our curiosity rather than stoke it. This same fate nearly afflicts the moistly Oedipal relationship between Frankie and Maggie, who patently craves a father figure just as he hungers to furnish one. Thankfully, both Eastwood and Swank keep us on our toes in their scenes together, modulating several types of affection into a blend of paternalism, eroticism, friendship, and sadomasochism that resists any easy label and refuses to flaunt its own ambiguities.

Oddly, the two concepts that Million Dollar Baby is best at evoking would seem to be mutually exclusive: on the one hand, a purity of purpose that propels Maggie's career (and propel's Frankie's stewardship of her, even despite himself), and the other, a discourse of class structures and, more simply, money. Frankie doesn't have much cash, but everyone else has less; Maggie steals leftovers at her waitressing job, and Scrap pushes mops around the gym and papers around the office so that Frankie's unspoken guardianship doesn't look or feel so much like the charity it is. No, the moment where Scrap tells us that Maggie grew up knowing one thing, "that she was trash," is not the proudest moment of Haggis' script, especially once Eastwood's patience with the Fitzgerald clan proves so alarmingly thin. Still, the way Frankie keeps doling out petty cash to his wards and buddies is a moving story in itself. He uses money in just the way he uses coagulants at ringside, to hold people together who need holding together, whose cars won't start (just as Frankie's car won't always start) and who can't afford plane tickets or socks or real gym memberships. I'm glad that Eastwood is such an un-vain performer in his own films that he calls zero attention to Frankie's ongoing philanthropy. In fact, he focuses much more pronouncedly on such unflattering attributes as Frankie's misogyny, which Maggie doesn't so much alleviate as she sidesteps it, by becoming such a transparent daughter figure. Elsewhere in the script, Frankie can regularly be heard calling the reigning WBA welterweight champ a "scabby Kraut" and urging Maggie to "hit her in her skinny ass" or "punch her in the titties till they turn blue and fall off." Not to belabor the boxing metaphors, but you can feel the movie constantly shifting its weight between two postures, an embrace of Frankie's human weakness and a stern, square look at his more gratuitous failures. Some viewers have complained that by contrast Maggie and even Scrap are rosy, overweeningly decent characters, but given how much emphasis Eastwood places on the sinking, desperate world where they travel and scramble, he doesn't need to invest these people with any manifest character flaws in order to generate conflict.

Million Dollar Baby, then, is a little like The Hit Pit, finding room and patience for lots of disparate personalities without rigidifying into a John Sayles movie, and without losing its basic, severe convictions in the arbitrary injustice of the world and the valor of fighting back, even when the battles are beyond endurance. The movie flexes and expands when necessary, in order to round out a characterization or pursue a temporary detour that will enrich our broader regard for what is happening. I have often been frustrated at the way Eastwood's actors and collaborators have tripped over themselves to praise his "no-bullshit" protocols on set, which famously privilege first takes over practiced approaches and restrict rehearsal and camera coverage to almost nothing. The negative dividends of this approach are often just as evident as the gains: didn't anyone wish the Mystic River cast had seemed, for a moment, to be acting in the same movie? Wasn't all of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a kind of clarion call for the need to grasp your material before endeavoring to film it? Eastwood was clearly the wrong director for that project, but in the most sympathetic light (the kind of light he himself tends to cast on his subjects, without sugarcoating), the reason may be that John Berendt's book had already supplied what Eastwood likes to achieve himself, penetrating into surfaces where others would simply pause and stare. Imperfect but earnest and aching, Million Dollar Baby places almost anachronistic value in crafts like camera placement, lighting concepts, nuances of editing, and quiet shadings of performance, all of which stay steady and true even when the film occasionally teeters, over-extends, or makes unfair jabs below the belts of supporting characters. The precipitous plot-turn that overtakes the film's final third isn't so much foreshadowed as enabled by Eastwood's longstanding knack for following stories where they need to go, and laying the groundwork for those late-film journeys. A lot of Mystic River didn't work, but as a two-hour warmup to those final shots of Marcia Gay Harden's Celeste, it's a doozy of delayed emotion. And then there's that rainy sequence at the stoplight near the end of The Bridges of Madison County, one of the most perfectly directed, acted, and edited passages from any American film in the last ten years. Million Dollar Baby hones and sustains this lineage. Its worldview, without Mystic River's more grandiose bent, gives paradoxically equal weight to fate, circumstance, and personal choice. The film, like its director, values instincts and raw talent but refuses to launder the threat and impact of unforeseeable calamity within the scene of human action. Considered that way, boxing is a perfect subject for an Eastwood film, and I wonder how or why it took him so long to make a movie about it. What a pleasure, at least, that he has, and that this is the one he has made. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Clint Eastwood
Best Actress: Hilary Swank
Best Actor: Clint Eastwood
Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman
Best Adapted Screenplay: Paul Haggis
Best Film Editing: Joel Cox

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Clint Eastwood
Best Actress (Drama): Hilary Swank
Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman
Best Original Score: Clint Eastwood

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director
National Society of Film Critics: Best Picture; Best Actress (Swank; tie)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Swank)
National Board of Review: Special Achievement in Filmmaking (Eastwood)

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