Million Dollar Baby
December 4, 2005
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Benito Martinez, ,
Untalented filmmakers make the mistake of keeping their movies simple with obvious, pedestrian direction. Clint Eastwood is an experienced director who doesn’t need overt, stylistic flourishes to make his point. His movies are the epitome of understatement. Fresh from the critical success of Mystic River (2003), he is back with another minimalist yet thematically dark drama that works its way into your head in a powerful and emotionally affective way.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a veteran boxing coach who doesn’t “train girls,” as he tells Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), a young boxer who doggedly pursues him to train her. He is in his twilight years and has just lost his star boxer to a slick manager because he may be afraid of making it to the big time for reasons that are initially unclear. Maggie eventually wears him down with her passion and heart and he begins to grudgingly train her with the understanding that it’s strictly business, but, of course, they gradually begin to bond. She looks up to him as a mentor and surrogate father figure and is able to eventually get past his tough, grizzled exterior.
Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Freeman) runs the gym and is friends with Frankie. They make a crusty duo, a bickering old couple that have been through and seen a lot over the years as is evident from the verbal shorthand between them. Like many Eastwood protagonists, Frankie has a checkered backstory, haunted by some past sin that has relegated him to the margins of society. It is never spelled out exactly but there are tantalizing hints of a strained relationship with his daughter that are left up to our imagination.
Clint Eastwood plays his usual grouchy self (although, underneath resides a soft, humanistic streak) with that great, aged, gravelly voice of his and in contrast Morgan Freeman radiates warmth with his kind eyes and inviting smile. The give and take between them is good—it has a natural flow and rhythm that only two experienced actors of their caliber can do.
Hilary Swank essays another white trash role but is able to really get inside her character’s head. At first, Maggie seems like a simple person but she’s not dumb, just inexperienced. Like her character, Swank undergoes an impressive physical transformation in this film: standard practice for actors in boxing movies after Raging Bull (1980) and Ali (2001). She not only looks and convincingly acts the part but is more than up for the dramatic weight of the last third of the movie, proving that Boys Don’t Cry (1999) wasn’t a fluke.
The colour palette and general look of Million Dollar Baby evokes the classic oil paintings of Edward Hopper with their use of shadow and contrast of light and dark. Like he did in Mystic River, Eastwood uses darkness and shadows effectively. We see Maggie working out by herself in Scrap’s gym after hours in semi-darkness while Frankie watches in the shadows. Tom Stern’s cinematography has a richness and texture that gives the movie a timeless quality.
While filmmakers like Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino belong to the Wal-Mart school of filmmaking with their obvious, overstated movies, Eastwood is couture—subtle, graceful filmmaking. Million Dollar Baby bucks the current trend that most Hollywood films adhere to by trying desperately to appeal to the largest demographic possible, usually a young one with disposable income. Eastwood isn’t interested in demographics or test screenings.
First and foremost, his movie is about characters and telling a story—a true rarity these days. He takes his time telling the story, letting us get to know the characters and settle into this world full of hard-working people who get by the best that they can with what they have. They aren’t sophisticated people but have a quiet dignity. Million Dollar Baby explores the complex morality of death. It is not an easy matter and Eastwood doesn’t let us off with easy answers. He keeps things honest and there is an authenticity to the way the characters act, feel and speak that avoids the tired cliches that fail most movies.
The first DVD includes a theatrical trailer.
The second DVD begins with a featurette called “Born to Fight,” that examines the characters in the movie. Real life boxer Lucia Rijker who trained Hilary Swank and was one her opponents in the movie talks about the art of boxing, coming off as quite eloquent and passionate about not just the sport but the movie as well.
“The Producers’ Round 15” explores the origins of the movie. Producer Albert S. Ruddy recounts how he convinced F.X. Toole to option his book and get it away from HBO who was also interested in adapting it. We learn that screenwriter Paul Haggis not only wrote the script but was interested in directing with Clint Eastwood only involved in an acting capacity. This is an excellent look at how this project came together.
This brings us to “James Lipton Takes on Three,” that features the host of The Actors Studio interviewing Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Swank right after they each won an Academy Award for the movie. Lipton is his usual pretentious self as he treats every question that he asks like it was the most important words ever spoken. Thankfully, the three actors cut through all of this as Freeman calls the Oscars a contest while Eastwood is his usual low-key self. They talk about their craft and, in particular, Eastwood’s improvisational nature.
Finally, the last disc contains Eastwood’s elegant and understated score for Million Dollar Baby.