22 December 2004 | thedwork
Best boxing film since "Raging Bull"?
Clint Eastwood is a man of faith. He is an artist who is confident and experienced enough to have a deep faith in the audience that he is trying to reach. He is also a master of omission, of the left-out detail/line, trusting in his gut that his audience is willing to participate in his films by exercising their imaginations; that they never want any aspect of the story to be 'dumbed-down' for ready consumption. In fact, his trust in the audience to use their own minds to fill in gaps is like a gift of part ownership in the film. "Million Dollar Baby" is a beautiful gift, and a masterpiece if film-making.
Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, an elder boxing coach, manager, and expert 'cut man' who runs a gym and is learning Gaelic on the side. He's a nice enough guy, but he can't seem to shake the guilt from ghosts in his past (some we're in on, some not quite). His guilt/shame is a constant just beneath the surface and gives him something of a cold exterior, sometimes frozen. Yet, as played by Eastwood, you know Dunn's aware of his own plight, but just doesn't know how to melt the ice. Or more importantly, if he's deserving of such a meltdown.
Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank). She's a thirty-something trailer trash woman from southwest Missouri. An unlikely hero for sure. But for my money, Maggie is this generation's Rocky. That may seem an easy, simplistic, and over-reaching comparison, but the parallels are deep, obvious and myriad. Like many people, Maggie's dream (being a professional boxer) is always just out of reach, yet she cannot give it up. She works as a waitress to make ends meet (or at least the ends are almost touching), but spends all her spare time training. Like Dunn, Maggie has her own ghosts haunting her, and through these ghosts they bond tighter than super glue. The heart and work (incalculably huge amounts) that Swank put into becoming Maggie are unnoticeable. It's a silly phrase but it's as if she was born to play this part. It fits like a glove. The real life parallel of her relationship to Eastwood no doubt played a part in her ability to connect with the character's relationship to Dunn. Yet this in no way diminishes her accomplishment. She is brilliant.
Morgan Freeman plays Dunn's right-hand man (Scrape) at the gym, and reprises a role similar to Red from "Shawshank Redemption". He also voices the omniscient narration to the story, a la Red. Like Dunn and Maggie, he's similarly bruised, but somehow less deeply. He's there when both of them need support and helps to bring them together. I can think of nobody acting in film today who can embody kindness and wisdom through friendship and support better than Freeman. He also serves to bring in another Eastwood trademark – 'Banter'. Even when themes are heavy, Eastwood's sense of humor is never entirely absent and he and Freeman have a good time with each other, as did Bacon and Fishburne in "Mystic River". These three characters together create a beautiful and true, albeit small, family unit Eastwood's lifelong themes and 'blurring of lines' are on full display: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, the role of violence, redemption, guilt/shame over previous acts, even god and death. Never one for easy answers, his version of the truth lies in the shadows, quite literally. Cinematographer Tom Stern crafts characters in shadow, shifting in and out of light. There is a grey area between the light and the dark where something approaching truth lies waiting, and this is where Eastwood takes us, then leaves us there to ponder. "Million Dollar Baby" is a shadow play. As accomplished as "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River", yet even more personal, this film is a triumph of human storytelling. As Bacon's character says in "Mystic River", "
and the hits just keep on comin'."