Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby may not dazzle you visually but it has all the elements of great drama: it introduces you to three main characters, drawing you in, making you care – then cuts loose, snatching along for a wildly unpredictably journey with the three. Clint Eastwood stars as a crusty, old boxing trainer, Frankie Dunn, who has ample talent but just hasn’t seen the big time – at least in the last couple of decades. Clint Eastwood’s performance is minimalist perfection – no melodramatic gestures, very little movement of his face – he does great “crusty.” Morgan Freeman (who also narrates) plays Eddie “Scrap” Dupris, Frankie’s right-hand man in running a boxing gym and long-time friend – perhaps Frankie’s only real friend. Frankie is estranged from his daughter, who returns his letters unopened, causing him considerable pain. Frankie and Eddie are very strong and focused men who are worn down by hard knocks and old age.
Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a determined, if untrained, aspiring boxer who may have potential, but at 31, is a little old to be getting started. At first, Frankie calls her “girlie” but that served to contrast -- she is gritty, motivated, and strong physically and mentally. Not surprisingly, she wants to train under the legendary but downtrodden Frankie -- he resists in a grouchy-old-man sort of way -- but soon relents. Million Dollar Baby makes use of cliché to get where it’s going: the grizzled old pro reluctantly taking on the questionably talented but highly motivated trainee – that’s something we’ve seen in many sports films – boxing films in particular. But Frankie’s tough-love training of Maggie as a boxer is only one element of the story. They do a bang-up job of developing the theme of intense athletic training as something that can give meaning to the trainee’s life – when little else in life is positive. But even that is only one piece of the puzzle – one component of a story of three people who are alone in the world and become attached as family.
Hilary Swank obviously trained hard to be so convincing as a boxer… I wouldn’t do anything to make her angry… not until she’s had a couple years to soften up. They also de-glamorized her as much as possible – mostly with the use of lighting and makeup. The Maggie character is a determined athlete, a fighter -- a poor, uneducated woman from Missouri whose sense of self is completely wrapped up in her physical training. They also resisted the temptation to add a romantic angle – Maggie didn’t have any male suitors and her attachment to Frankie was as a surrogate for the estranged daughter. He was a father figure to her. Eddie was like a close relation to both of them.
Side note: have you seen the promotional materials for Million Dollar Baby? The photos of Hilary Swank are pretty hot – she’s shot in black and white from the back – definitely a glamour photo. In the movie, they clearly make an effort to present her as totally unglamorous – it’s an interesting mismatch between the marketing and the look of the actual movie.
The production design and cinematography are very dark and spare. Frankie’s gym is the kind of run-down place where you would expect people like Frankie and Eddie to hang out. To illustrate Maggie’s determination, they have her slugging away on the heavy bag alone at night, in the dark gym – that image was a bit too much – clichéd. Couldn’t they turn on the lights? Still, all of the elements making up the look of the film came together very well to create this small world where our three main characters live. Simple. Plain. Real.
.Million Dollar Baby is difficult to discuss without giving away too much. The last 45 minutes or so is some of the most intense drama I’ve experienced in the last few years. Clint Eastwood does such a great job of setting up the characters and bringing the viewer into their little circle that when the real punch (sorry) comes, it’s incredibly powerful. Even by indie film standards, the direction that this story takes is unconventional. I recommend seeing it before some knucklehead who has seen it tells you too much and blows the plot – you need to see it soon. On the DVD vs. theater question – I must say that it won’t lose too much if transferred to DVD – since it doesn’t rely on spectacular visuals – the power is in character development and story. But do see it soon, it’s one of the best of 2004.
Photographs are copyright Warner Brothers.
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