Million Dollar Baby

After Mystic River, one of the most overrated pictures of the last few years, this is a return to form for Clint Eastwood. He produces, directs, scores and stars in “Million Dollar Baby”, a boxing drama where it’s the emotional wounds that take the longer to heal. While not quite as wrenching as something like Patrice Chéreau’s “Son Frère” (my favorite French film of last year), Eastwood’s film does dare to look human suffering straight in the eye and explore why some pains are harder to let go than others.

The screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns, is narrated by Morgan Freeman’s character (like The Shawshank Redemption), but the core of the story is the unlikely bond that develops between Maggie Fitzerald, a waitress who wants to become a boxer, and Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), the owner of the Hit Pit Gym who has always refused to train girls. Maggie “grew up knowing one thing: she was trash”. But she’s strong-willed and eventually, she convinces Frankie to go against his instincts and make her the best fighter she can be.

“Boxing is about respect,” and through their training sessions the old guy and the young woman earn each other’s. Frankie seems like the strong silent type, and he is, but he’s a big softie at heart. He truly starts to care about the chick and starts to think she can go all the way. This leads to a riveting title match in Las Vegas against a former East Berlin prostitute (!) known for fighting dirty. Will Maggie make her dreams of glory come true or will she get knocked back into her former dead-end white trash life?

“Boxing is an unnatural act,” but so’s any situation where one chooses to risk getting pummelled for a shot at greatness. “Million Dollar Baby” is about that, about learning to open up again and about hanging on to hope even when life has beat you down. Like most of Eastwood’s films as a director, his latest is meticulously crafted without trying to be spectacular, it unfolds at a laid-back pace and it’s driven by actors given the room to fill out their characters. Swank is as amazing as she was in her Oscar-winning turn in Boys Don’t Cry, raw but tough and even funny, in a bittersweet way. Freeman is note-perfect as always, bringing the no-bullshit affection of long-time buddies to all his scenes with Eastwood. Clint himself is at the top of his game, acting-wise, showing a rarely seen vulnerable side.

There are a lot of things to admire in “Million Dollar Baby”: its unforced sentimentality, the roughness of the scenes in the ring, the use of lots of shadows with passing light in which the characters step back and forth… There are a few narrative shortcuts and some characterizations that cut too broadly (the retarded kid, Maggie’s trailer park family), but this remains a powerful movie. I don’t feel the third act delivers the knock-out blow that’s intended, but it’s still a technical decision win for Eastwood, Swank and Freeman.