Monday, February 21, 2005

"Million Dollar Baby" Packs a Punch


directed by Clint Eastwood
starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

(Note: possible spoilers—though nothing specific.)


Until today, I don’t know if I ever understood what “catharsis” really meant. I think I do now.

“Million Dollar Baby” may not be a tragedy in the classical sense. No doubt Aristotle would have looked down his nose at both its protagonists and its plot. All the same, when I walked out of the theater today, the thought pulsing through my head was: this must be what the ancient Greeks felt, or should have felt, after a real humdinger by Aeschylus or Sophocles. I felt like I’d been knocked out (sorry, pun unavoidable) and hung out to dry. Yet I also felt oddly cleansed. Purged. And elevated—not manipulated.

The intensity of my reaction took me completely by surprise. I went into “Million Dollar Baby” expecting to be distinctly underwhelmed. I knew far too much about the plot: in fact, I knew everything, including the “twist” that critics had been darkly hinting at and pundits huffily outing. I don’t care for boxing, and I frankly prefer gloss to grit in my movies. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Eastwood as a director: I’d seen “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” and “Bridges of Madison County,” all of which I thought were solid but overrated. “Baby,” thought I, would surely be no exception. At best, I acknowledged I might be depressed by what I knew was going to be a real downer of an ending.

But as I watched, something about this movie burrowed into my heart and then quietly detonated. I’m still trying to define what exactly that “something” is. A kind of emotional honesty, combined with restraint—a potential tearjerker told so sparely that its climax has twice the impact that a more sentimental approach would have produced. Like Frankie, the Irish boxing trainer he plays, Eastwood brings a terse professional and personal style that’s cross-hatched with utter delicacy—and genuine tenderness. It’s exactly right for a film that focuses on the bond between loner Frankie, estranged from his only daughter, and Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), the ambitious but untrained female boxer he reluctantly agrees to take on as a pupil. In other hands, the surrogate father-daughter relationship between crusty coot and scrappy student might easily have degenerated into cliché. Here, the bond develops gradually, with few soft words and even fewer hugs. Hence Frankie’s paternal love, as it emerges, feels unforced and hard-earned.

“MDB” has its flaws, of course, but they’re mainly flaws of execution rather than conception. Maggie’s trailer-trash family, for one: every time they appear, they register less as characters than as caricatures. And the film uses too much voice-over—though you can’t really go wrong with voice-over by Morgan Freeman, who narrates the story from a third-person perspective. (That said, half the time I felt like I was watching a sequel to “The Shawshank Redemption”, which is not a bad thing, except that “MDB” is a better film.) Freeman plays Scrap, former boxer and Frankie’s lifelong friend, with his usual grace and humanity. He also gets the best line (and punch) in the movie.

But this is Eastwood and Swank’s movie to win or lose, and they win every round. Swank holds her end up well, and brings a bracing physicality and conviction to her character that few, if any, other actresses could have pulled off. It’s Eastwood’s performance, however, that really anchors the Frankie-Maggie relationship and the film as a whole. Initially shielded in its impassive, oak-like ruggedness, his face creases into more and deeper lines than one would imagine possible, as he reveals a man ultimately confronted with the darkest decision of his life. That Eastwood manages to convey this quandary, and his love, so painfully and at the same time so naturally is the hallmark of a film that manages to transcend the deep pain and deeper grief it evokes—a pain and grief in which, to cop a phrase from Frankie’s beloved Yeats, a terrible beauty is born. “Million Dollar Baby,” without a doubt, is Eastwood’s most personal film. It is also, without a doubt, his best.

RATING: *** 1/2


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