Released 2005. Director: Clint Eastwood
FOLLOWING THE MOODY MASTERPIECE MYSTIC RIVER only the year before, Clint Eastwood returns with another magnum opus. Million Dollar baby is a work that finds its way into a deep, dark place in your heart and stays there, quietly.
Ostensibly a boxing movie, Eastwood reveals his secret only in the last third, by which time he has drawn us into an inner circle between three characters we've come to care about. Frank is a retired boxing trainer who now runs a small gym. His old friend Scrap used to be quite a boxer, now living his last days in a back room at the gym. And then's there's Maggie, a waitress with not much money, education or anything really, except for a dogged determination to be a boxer.
Maggie is too old to train and Frank refuses to train a female. But Maggie shows up every day and finally Scrap convinces Frank to give Maggie a break. The friendship between them grows hesitantly in the half light and shadows of the seedy gym. An earthy, grey tone pervades the scenes like a portent of the murky conumdrum that will eventually befall these ordinary, unassuming people.
Eastwood's direction is beautifully paced with lean and graceful editing, nothing is wasted and no more is needed, right up to the end that brings a lump to the throat. Million Dollar Baby is a powerful movie because it doesn't walk away from the difficult situation it's heading. Towards the end there's an eerie moment when all we hear is the mechanical humming of a respiratory machine. The audiences in the cinema have surrendered ourselves, keeping our breathing softer than the low hum that washes over us.
When the movie first came out, the huge moral debate over the final outcome in the story had perhaps overshadowed the beauty and elegance of the movie itself. For the context and direction the movie has chosen to take, the closure is perfect and essential, keeping true to its spirit, but no less thunderstruck when it occurs. It offers audiences the artistic carthasis that's desperately needed.
It is masterful storytelling about doing penance, gritty determination, surrogate family and finding the courage to let go. Two parallel plot lines echo the theme in an elegiac, succinct manner. Frank writes frequently to his estranged daughter. But we never see her. Frank also faithfully attends church service. Is he a believer, or just waiting for an answer God hasn't given in 23 years?
Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman keep their acting under the radar, subtle and restrained, briiliant examples of the phrase less is more. Frank is a haunted man seeking redemption as a father. Maggie has nothing, not even the love of her selfish family, and gains everything in the end with one final wish. Scrap loses an eye, a possibly brilliant career, finds friendship and dignity. Few movies this year can win a fight with this baby.