Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby
Topic: Film & TV
I saw Million Dollar Baby on Friday night. It's important to note that this isn't a "boxing movie" it's a movie about a boxer, and that distinction matters absolutely to the soul of the story.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a poor and uneducated waitress who wants to be a boxer more specifically, she wants to be the middleweight champion of the world. She doesn't have money and she's already in her 30s, not to mention the fact that she's a woman; it's hard for her to find a trainer. She shows up at the Hit Pit gym with the hopes of training under its proprietor, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). Frankie is finally worn down by her persistence and charm plus a little prodding by her new friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Scrap lives in a little room at the Hit Pit, and mops the floors; he's a former prizefighter who was trained by Frankie until he lost an eye after a bout and had to quit. Frankie clearly carries regret for that, but Scrap doesn't blame him, because Frankie wasn't his manager and couldn't have stopped the fight.
Frankie starts working with Maggie, and we see immediate improvement in her skills. It takes a while, but eventually he becomes her manager as well, and then she finally gets to hit something other than a bag. Maggie starts winning fights, moves up in rankings and class, and gets the opportunity to fight in Europe. She and Frankie become as close as father and daughter as she works her way toward a title fight this closeness is something they both need, since his daughter returns his letters unopened, and her welfare-scamming mother expects her to come back home to share a life of white-trash, trailer-park misery.
I will go no further in my description, because the twists in the plot and tone are what make this movie great. Unfortunately, they were spoiled for me by a little online blurb which didn't post a spoiler warning. I'm sorry I couldn't come into this movie as a blank slate, and let it have its natural impact but I think if I had, I would only have appreciated it more.
The acting by the three leads was just superb. Hilary Swank started in crappy movies and on Beverly Hills, 90210, and she wasn't very good but now, she's a good actress. She must have worked very hard to get better, and she is better, so I'm glad it's paying off for her. Maggie succeeds as a likeable character because Swank makes her likeable in a very natural way you just want to buy Maggie a sandwich, because she seems like a good person who works hard but is hungry. Her smile is rather infectious, especially her goofy mouthguard shrug-and-grin when she starts winning bouts in three punches.
Clint Eastwood can once again be described as "flinty," but his character hints at a more complex layer. Frankie goes to church regularly; he departs each Mass with a jokingly baiting remark to the priest, which comes across as a defense mechanism and doesn't diminish what is clearly a serious faith. He's always telling Maggie "You've got to protect yourself" I think those remarks after Mass are his self-protection. And his desperation when he can't protect Maggie just like he couldn't protect Scrap turns his whole life into a mission of restitution, repaying debts of responsibility that he never truly accrued. I think Frankie is repaying his real daughter, for what I'm guessing was a lack of attention or responsibility, by doing well unto others like Maggie. I bought into Clint's portrayal of a guilt-ridden man with a hard shell.
Morgan Freeman described himself recently on Inside the Actor's Studio as having "gravitas." It's true; he brings a certain seriousness, dignity, and credibility to his roles. I think that's not something you can fake, or act you either have it, or you don't. He's got it, a trustworthiness and sincerity that just shines from his eyes. That quality lets Scrap be more than just an ex-prizefighter, more than a janitor; he's almost Maggie's guardian angel and maybe he's Frankie's, too.
The result of this deep characterization is that the audience grows a great affection for each of these three people. And it's this affection that makes the pain of the movie's concluding conflict transfer from the characters to us, so that we feel their pain and are moved by it. I think it's unfair to shoehorn this into the "issues movie" box, as it does address a difficult political issue at the end, but it manages to let the characters choose a side without condoning either viewpoint. It's clearly a lose-lose situation, no matter what side you agree with. (That's vague, I know, but it's only fair to keep it thus.)
I give this movie 3.75 stars out of 4.00. It's very intense and sometimes graphically bloody there is boxing in it, after all. I hope Hilary Swank wins the Oscar actually, all three acting nominations are well-deserved.
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