Million Dollar Baby

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/29/05 17:38:07

"That's a masterpiece, boss."
5 stars (Awesome)

By now, you’ve already heard all about “Million Dollar Baby” - that it’s Clint Eastwood’s best film since “Unforgiven;” that it’s one of the best movies of the year; that it challenges “Rocky” as the greatest boxing flick ever made; that it features award-worthy performances; that it is, simply, an amazing movie experience. Well, everything you have heard is true.

And then some, in fact. The film is an emotional punch to the throat, a drama that still has me shaken, here a full hour-plus since the closing credits rolled. “Baby” works on multiple levels, with Eastwood (both as director and actor) supplying an overwhelming complexity of characters and their actions. This is Eastwood’s trademark, allowing his best works to be not about what happens, but how they happen and to whom. As a filmmaker, Eastwood has once again allowed us to peek into the lives of people at pivotal moments; he understands that if the characters and their situations are sharp enough, the audience will become so drawn in that the plot will essentially become a bonus.

The characters we’re given here, thanks to screenwriter Paul Haggis (adapting a series of stories by former boxing manager Jerry Boyd, writing as “F.X. Toole”), are endlessly watchable people. The script gives us three: Frank (Eastwood), a run-down trainer and gym owner who’s a walking personification of regret; Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer now working as a custodian at Frank’s gym, and the last friend Frank has; and Maggie (Hilary Swank), a too-determined hopeful from some nowhere town in Missouri who wanders into Frank’s gym one day, dead set on getting Frank to train her, never mind that she’s too old and too inexperienced for the sport.

These are characters with ghosts in the pasts, problems deeply buried that forever burn the memory. And yet the screenplay refuses to make this a larger issue than it needs to be. There are no overbearing speeches, no grandiose moments of revelation. We learn merely enough for us to understand, and then the script backs away, knowing that we’ve been told enough, and anything else would overshadow the present. It’s a wise and trusting way to develop characters, and Haggis nails it just right.

There’s also a poetry to Haggis’ writing (with credit due, I‘m guessing, to Boyd, although I have not read his work). Using Freeman as narrator, we hear nuggets of wisdom on the art of boxing that soothes the ear: “Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself, and taking it from the other guy.” “Boxing is an unnatural act, because everything in it is backwards.” Freeman’s narration propels the story in ways narration often fails to do - this is not fill-in-the-story-gaps narration, used by some lazy author, but a story enhancement managed by someone with a firm command on the art of language. (Even the dialogue sings, in a delicate balance between sharp attention to words and the fact that these words are coming from people who don’t place a sharp attention to words.)

It helps, of course, that to deliver such words, here we have three actors providing the finest performances of their careers. Imagine the film that takes two icons of the silver screen and manages to make them look like everyday Joes. Eastwood and Freeman come across like a couple of old guys you’d come across at the grocery store, not an easy task considering the recognizability of both. Better still, when things call for Eastwood to become a cauldron of buried emotions by the third act, the veteran is more than up for the job, presenting a turn so finely crafted that we’re reminded that while he makes an essential director and a kick-ass tough-guy action star, he’s also a masterful actor. And here, he caps his career with his best turn yet.

As for Swank, who’s far too young to call this a career-capper, her work here can best be described as that which will cement her as one of the finest performers working today. She takes a leading role that could have been ruined by overplaying, and instead takes a low-key approach, the result being a character that feels entirely natural. As “Baby” is at its core a quiet, no-frills movie, finding three leading performances that work almost entirely through subtlety and restraint is a great addition to an already wonderful film.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the characters and their story that one can be forgiven for overlooking the sheer remarkableness of Eastwood’s direction. Here, Eastwood takes his time telling the tale, knowing that rushing things would only get in the way. His pacing is deliberate, his use of slower rhythms a firm sign of trust in and understanding of his material - anything fancy would only get in the way here. And so we get an elegant use of light and shadow, of gentle pauses and quiet moments. Eastwood has never been a “showy” filmmaker, and here, much like his impeccable work on “Unforgiven,” he conveys a knack for understatement as a key to storytelling.

So yes, there is no question about the status of “Million Dollar Baby” as a work that instantly ranks on the short list of Essential Eastwood. Everything here fits just right, a small story of ordinary people that manages to loom large in the mind of everyone lucky enough to watch. And yes, even after the calming act of writing the review, I remain emotionally shaken. This, my friends, is a brilliant film.

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