10 March 2005 | harry_tk_yung
Oscar calibre, and yet
ADDITIONAL SPOILER WARNING
Coincidentally, both of the best pictures in this year's Oscar are about choosing death against life, although the circumstances are markedly different. The mood is even more polarised. In Mar adentro, I've never seen a story about death that has so much life that while deeply moved, I left the cinema elated and thankful. With Million Dollar Baby, I cannot remember ever leaving a cinema feeling so depressed.
Many describe the first half of the movie a "Rocky" type of uplifting story. Director Eastwood however is determined not to give people who are looking for usual Hollywood cheap thrills what they want. Resisting numerous opportunities to melodramatic magnifications, he tells the story in a simple old style and with minimalism. In addition, some detachment is gained through voice over narration of an observer (albeit not an entirely detached one) one-time great boxer and now janitor "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman). The final acceptance of late comer (over 30) Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) by trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to pugilistic training does bring an emotional stir but even that tends towards underplaying. Then, except for one bout in which Maggie has her nose broken, all her victories are covered in such rapidity that can almost be mistaken for carelessness. But make no mistake about it. That is exactly the way it is intended to be, so as not to take the focus away from the characters, and their interaction.
Scrap and Frankie is a pair that have been through a lot together, and have reached a point in their life when there's nothing that cannot be said between them. And it's not what is said, by the way they say it, that counts. The spark between Freeman and Eastwood provides some of the much-needed easy and humorous moods in this movie.
Scrap plays a role that is almost like a guardian angel to Maggie. There is not a great deal of interaction between them but whenever there is, he is always gentle and understanding. Morgan and Swank light up the perpectually gloomy screen in this movie with the warmth they radiate.
It is course on the interaction between Frankie and Maggie that this movie rests. Through the initial rejection, the gradual acceptance, the intense training and the eventual sharing of success, we see the development of a mentor/protégé relationship that is quite common, even when superbly acted. It's the abrupt and tragic turn of events in the middle that brings into focus the father/daughter relationship that has been fermenting all along. Not even descriptions such as "heart-breaking" can do justice to the emotional turmoil the audience experiences through the second half of the movie. The depth of the emotion intensifies as the agony portrayed by Eastwood and Swank towards the end pierce the air like a silent scream.
While Million Dollar Baby is undoubtedly Oscar calibre in many respects, it is extremely depressing to watch. Final observation: here's a movie with absolutely no sex whatsoever (those who suggest otherwise may wish to consider consulting a psychiatrist), only one four-letter word (uttered, incidentally, by a priest), and a lot of guts in not trying to please the mass.