Saturday, January 15, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

In an era when mindless action dominates Hollywood, Clint Eastwood has followed his own path to success, making smart, chiaroscuro character studies. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil wasn’t one of his best movies, but it may have been his ideal title: His turf is the dark corner of the soul where men confront their shortcomings and search for redemption.

Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood’s latest movie as both director and star, is a film noir fable, like Mystic River and The Unforgiven. Also like those two, it’s about a man who’s struggling to do the right thing while burdened by the weight of an almost unbearable sorrow. It’s already hoovering up awards, including a Golden Globe for best director, and it probably made more critics’ top 10 lists than any other movie last year. It didn’t make mine, since I tend to resist movies that pull at my heartstrings this insistently. Yet it’s so well done, and the dilemma facing the main characters is so profound, that it teased some tears even out of me.

You can almost smell the stale sweat in The Hit Pit, the rundown boxing club managed by Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn, and the other locations are just as scrupulously rendered. The platonic love affair between Dunn and Scrap (Morgan Freeman), the old running partners who run the place together, also feels real. Dunn used to work the corner in boxing matches, patching up fighters’ cuts between rounds, until he quit to manage the club and the occasional fighter. Scrap used to be one of his fighters. Their mutual affection and occasional exasperation, and the rhyming sense of bemused authority that both men exude, make them believable as lifelong friends.

Scrap serves as the movie’s witness and narrator, describing in voice-over what we see unfold as Maggie (Hilary Swank), a young woman with talent but no formal training, convinces the reluctant Frankie to turn her into a fighter. Swank has said she feels closer to Maggie than to any other character she’s played, partly because they both grew up in trailer parks and made their mark through athletics (before becoming an actress, she swam in the Junior Olympics). She makes us feel everything experienced by the valiantly stoic Maggie, and she locates the quietly determined drive that allows Maggie to fight her way out of what Scrap describes as “someplace between nowhere and goodbye.”

But virtually everyone else has the pat, one-dimensional feel of an archetype. Maggie’s snarky sister, ex-con brother, and carping mom are a greedy collection of trailer trash without a single redeeming feature among them. I don’t know how much of that characterization was in the F.X. Toole short stories the script is based on and how much was added by screenwriter Paul Haggis, but wherever it came from, it was such contemptuous stereotyping that it distanced me from the story. So did a subplot about a sweet-natured, developmentally disabled club member who dreams of becoming the next Tommy Hearns, and who might have wandered into this movie out of a Dead End Kids tearjerker. Scrap’s voice-over narration, framed as a letter to Frankie’s daughter, written to let her know “what kind of man your father was,” can also get self-consciously "literary."

We never see that daughter, who cannot forgive Frankie for something (we never learn what) that he did years earlier. He’s haunted by guilt over that failed relationship, which may be part of the reason why he’s overprotective of his fighters, who he hates to see hurt. His paternalism drives away the fighter he’s grooming at the beginning of the movie, but it’s just fine by Maggie, who needs a father as much as Frankie needs a daughter.

Those neatly matching needs feel a bit formulaic at first, but once the two engage with each other, everything – and everyone – else fades into the background. “I got nobody but you, Frankie,” Maggie tells him on their way home from a visit to her unfeeling family. From then on we generally see them alone, as even the once-bustling Hit Pit turns into a backdrop for the story of a surrogate father and daughter and the life-altering decision he has to make about how best to help her.

There’s an anachronistic feel to Million Dollar Baby, which Eastwood told Film Comment he shot to look as if “it could have taken place in the Thirties or Forties, and it’s only the cars or what’s on the radio that tells you you’re in one time and not another.” Part of the old-fashioned feel comes from its contrasty, shadow-drenched noir look. But part comes from Eastwood himself. With his lined but still chiseled face, lanky body, skeptical squint, and laconic self-confidence, he evokes the stars of his youth, particularly Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper.

Here as in his other movies of the past decade or so, Eastwood the actor makes no effort to mask his age. Frankie peers over half-glasses to read the Yeats he loves and rises painfully from his knees after prayer, and when Maggie leaps into his arms in glee he complains about his back. But these things don’t look like weakness in Eastwood. They’re just another indication of his artist’s eye for detail and his sympathy for human frailty, which seem to be deepening as he ages.

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