#3 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
I don’t know what it was about the early 2000s that turned Clint Eastwood’s directing output around from largely middling fare to seriously fantastic filmmaking, but it honestly could be no more than him suddenly deciding to direct better scripts. He should keep doing that. What he found with Million Dollar Baby, a script by Paul Haggis, was a tragedy that gave him time to shine both in front of and behind the camera. I don’t often get a bit choked at movies, but this is the first Eastwood movie to do that to me.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a gym owner and trainer whose latest protégé, Mickey (Bruce MacVittie), is becoming impatient with Dunn’s very slow approach to getting him a title fight. As Dunn’s business partner and friend, Eddie (Morgan Freeman), says, Dunn could have gotten Mickey the shot two years before, but Dunn won’t commit. And that is the early crux of the story. Dunn is a fighter who doesn’t want to commit. He’s always on his heels, unwilling to charge into the fight, and he does that on every facet of his life. Into that life comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a poor, approaching middle-aged woman with dreams of becoming a successful boxer. She wants Dunn to train her to be a fighter, but Dunn is simply not interested. However, when Mickey leaves Dunn for another manager who will give him his shot at the title, Dunn suddenly finds himself a bit lost.
This is a character piece at heart, and Frankie Dunn is a great central character. With a shadowed past of sin, in particular around his estranged daughter, he goes to mass daily where he seemingly just shows up to needle the priest (Brian O’Byrne) with borderline sacrilegious questions, a front to mask the guilt he carries around with him everywhere. Something in his past has kept him from reaching higher or faster, and then Maggie comes and is his exact opposite. She’s untrained and overeager, winning small bouts messily in ways that show she’s not ready to move up in class. She’s also completely determined on getting Dunn as her manager, and she will not back down. Every time she moves in, he backs away, until he feels like he can’t back away anymore, especially with Eddie encouraging them both at the same time.
Maggie is an eager student and eats up Dunn’s advice, quickly becoming queen of her small class and obviously ready for a move up. She is alone in Los Angeles, her family living off of welfare back in Missouri, and in Frankie she sees a potential father figure, the kind of caring, attentive person she’d always lacked. Considering Frankie’s cantankerousness, there’s a certain irony in it, but like Frankie’s treatment of the priest, it’s a front.
And this is where the movie would feel the most generic save for Eastwood’s directing style. If he were more of a chameleon, he’d ramp up the sports feeling of this middle section where Maggie begins to fight under his tutelage. However, Eastwood (for good or ill across his filmography) is just going to make movies his own, lowkey way no matter what, and it really ends up being an asset to Million Dollar Baby. Maggie has her rise to the top, but it’s not handled in an over-the-top fashion, it’s handled with tact and a certain quietness so that scenes of Maggie easily winning matches can rest surprisingly comfortably with small scenes of two people talking in subdued tones, like when Eddie explains to Maggie about how Frank tried to get him out of a fight decades past that Eddie refused to back out of where he eventually lost and lost his eye. Frankie never brings it up, but Eddie can see it in Frankie’s face every time he looks at him.
Frankie cannot let go of the past. It’s why he goes to mass every day. It’s why he acts so slowly in advancing in life. He’s been hurt somehow, and he’s carried that hurt for a very long time, and it’s Maggie who finally finds a way to let him reach out to someone else again.
And then, of course, the movie takes a hard turn in Maggie’s title shot fight, and we suddenly see that no, we were not in a sports movie, but we’ve definitely been in a tragedy the whole time. This is why Eastwood’s lowkey approach to the middle section is such an asset. We do get the standard elements of the sports underdog story, but keeping it muted in tone doesn’t lead to a whiplash at the turn. We know we’re in a drama primarily through the first 90 minutes, so when there’s the turn, it’s an evolution of that rather than a complete undermining of the more general sports take it could have had.
The finale is dominated by Frankie’s newfound determination to fight for Maggie. He fights for her health, for her money, and for her life. She has become his replacement daughter and he her replacement father. They are all they have in the world, and Frankie is going to do everything he can. He’s going to fight for the first time in decades up until the point where Maggie stops fighting and gives up.
This is the controversial part of the film, but much like the ending of Mystic River, it’s an embrace of the morally complex. Frankie has an impossible decision to make, something that if he does it he will destroy his soul, as the priest says. This is a greater sin than anything he’s committed in his life up to that point, and his scene with the priest is probably Eastwood’s finest moment as an actor. He’s completely torn apart by this, and his moment where he finally reveals himself (in part) to the priest is heartbreaking. He’s going to do something wrong. He’s going to hurt the woman who has become his daughter, but he feels like he has to do it because she wants him to.
Could Maggie have lived a full life in her state? As full as any other handicapped person, but she doesn’t see it that way. She’s outright suicidal to the point that doctors have to keep her permanently sedated. She won’t accept the life she suddenly has, and no one will convince her otherwise. What Frankie does is a mercy, but it destroys him in the process. He essentially vanishes, like a ghost. I remember reading the short story collection that inspired the screenplay (Rope Burns by F.X. Toole), and the writing there makes it more explicit that Frankie destroys himself in doing what he does. Of course, anything outside the film doesn’t count, but Eddie’s voice over (which wonderfully reveals itself to be a letter to Frankie’s daughter by the end) reinforces the same idea. After it’s done, Frankie has nothing.
This is an awful choice that Frankie must make, and I was there with him. It was a gut wrenching decision that I might not have taken myself, but which I understood. He’s finally found something to fight for, and he has to give it up. Not only is he losing his one real connection in the world, but he’s also been defeated in reversing his entire outlook on life. She had opened him up to fighting again, to leading instead of falling back, and her pain knocked him back as well, but it was her giving up that knocked him flat. That’s just good writing right there.
I think Eastwood himself is the centerpiece in the acting round here, but the rest of the cast is wonderful as well. That starts with Swank as the white-trash with a dream Maggie, who’s full of fight, not all that smart, but is willing to listen and learn. Her earnestness in her attempts make her a great scrappy figure at the center of a typical sports film, and the tragic direction in the final third she handles well in her limited physical state. Freeman is a rock that operates almost like a Greek chorus, especially in his voiceover (the mere presence of which was becoming something of a cliché at this point in cinematic history, for sure) while also offering up some of the film’s small lighthearted moments. He also has some nice screentime with Jay Baruchel who plays a hopeless, all-heart welterweight wannabe who could never get a real fight.
This is one of the triumphs of Eastwood’s career. This is a hard-hitting film that perfectly matches with Eastwood’s directing style. It’s some of the finest acting in an Eastwood movie, all laid on top of a foundation written by Haggis that understands its structure and characters incredibly well.