Finally, the New Clint Eastwood, dramatically unveiled in Blood Work and improved upon in Mystic River, comes into his own. The deliberate, portentious style he has been fine-tuning finds a home in Million Dollar Baby, a powerful and profoundly upsetting drama about two people who try to use each other to redeem their lives. Perhaps because the film is so intensely character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven, Eastwood’s approach doesn’t seem oppressive or contrived but rather probing and considered.
The above description — “drama about two people who try to use each other to redeem their lives” — is far too reductive, not only because Million Dollar Baby‘s themes are more complex by several orders of magnitude, but also because it is not a film about “themes.” There is never the impression that the screenplay was written to illustrate a point, and that’s what makes it a near-masterpiece — movies that delve into the sort of heavy issues that permeate the last act of Million Dollar Baby tend to become platforms for those issues, but this film is faithfully about its characters from beginning to end.
That’s not to say that the characters are in any sense “real,” aside from the fact that they are ostensibly human beings. Eastwood is not interested in recreating the details of real life, and we never quite learn where his Frankie Dunn gets the money to keep up his classically raggedy boxing gym, or whether the sentence “Girly tough ain’t enough” has ever actually been spoken. But the movie is real on a more important level. You may never meet a Frankie Dunn, but that doesn’t make Million Dollar Baby any less wrenching.
This is the Magic of the Movies, or part of it, anyway: creating characters whom we relate to/sympathize with/feel for but who are nonetheless from another universe. The somber, blue-toned universe Eastwood creates here is stylized and otherwordly, but for two hours plus it becomes our world, and its inhabitants our compatriots. In that sense, it’s not much different from a great fantasy epic: it takes us to a new place, even if the differences between it and our world are more subtle.
Million Dollar Baby is by no means a boxing movie, as many critics have already taken the opportunity to point out, but Eastwood does take some time to toy with boxing movie conventions. I’ve already mentioned the gym, which is precisely the sort of grimy, brick wall place we are used to seeing. The first half of the film follows an at least superficially familiar path, as the down-on-his-luck boxing trainer takes on a too-old underdog pupil, but Eastwood gives everything — including the iconic training montage — a profound sense of melancholy. We are never allowed to forget that we are most likely not heading toward a triumph.
The last act would have represented an about-face for most movies, a shocking reversal of tone and feel. Not for Eastwood, who spent the rest of the film preparing us for it, making what happens seem utterly inevitable. The intimation seems to be that these characters can only be redeemed through tragedy, that disaster is the last step in washing away their sins and guilt. “He didn’t have anything left in him,” it is said of Frankie Dunn at the end of the film, and the movie seems to be saying that he has been washed clean not only of his guilt and fear, but also of his life force.
Hilary Swank is miraculous as the determined boxer; this is really her follow-up to Boys Don’t Cry, with everything in between just being “work.” It would have been so easy to make Maggie Fitzgerald insufferable — she does, after all, spend half the movie pestering Clint Eastwood — but Swank gives her dignity and believability. When she says “If I’m too old for this, I got nothing,” we instinctively sympathize with her; there is no sense that she is whining, posturing, wheedling or confused. And in the final scenes, Swank brings “dignity” to a whole new level.
Rarely do we get to deploy the term “great movie” without qualifying it to mean less than that, or sometimes more. Million Dollar Baby is a great movie, in the good old sense, telling an enthralling story and treating its characters with sympathy and kindness. More than forty years into his career, Clint Eastwood is still growing.