With the peculiarly titled Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood elicits yet another remarkable performance from a young actor. Hilary Swank, who just a film or so ago (The Core) was looking like she’d never again achieve the stunning effectiveness of Boys Don’t Cry, is here subtle and moving. As Maggie Fitzgerald, a 30something girl beginning to box too late in life, Swank combines woundedness and moxie, convincingly bounced off the craggy generosity of her mentor.
That said, Maggie (and Swank, to an extent) is also frequently undone by the frustrating one-two punch of Eastwood’s formula. On one hand, the filmmaker knows his genres, and is plainly fond of hackneyed characters and plot turns; on the other, he’s able to use such devices to defy preconceptions, to twist moral complacencies and unnerve viewers. Frustratingly, Eastwood’s genre resistances tend to be temporary, as when Unforgiven‘s anti-Western rhythms collapse in a virtuous and overdetermined killing spree, or when Mystic River‘s consideration of regret and repression give way to an emotional shortcut, coded as Lady Macbethism.
The challenges and premises of Million Dollar Baby are similarly spotty. Maggie’s an appealingly resolute outsider who arrives at Frank Dunn’s (Eastwood) beat-down gym just as he loses the one fighter (Mike Colter) under his management who’s on his way to a championship bout. Frank, it turns out, has a tragic past, revealed gradually, that makes him timid about urging fighters to take the next step. He also carries the typical domestic burden of fight movie veterans, that is, he’s got an estranged daughter, to whom he writes monthly even though every letter is returned unopened. Add to this the fact that he goes to church every day, only to question the priest on theological dilemmas (how to parse the trinity and the one-god arrangement, for instance), and you have in place the customary Eastwoodian anti-hero — gruff, broken, and really wanting to believe in something, again.
Frank’s psychic pain is somewhat offset and frequently explained by his longtime friend, former fighter and now gym’s janitor, one-eyed Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). As the film’s doleful narrator, Eddie walks you through specific emotional shifts and narrative details. Frank’s interest in Yeats in Gaelic, for instance, means he’s a hardcore traditionalist and romantic at heart (and don’t mess with him when he’s reading). When Maggie shows up at the gym, all bad form and eager energy, Frank’s most prominent (loud) clients are a scrawny, inept kid nicknamed Danger (Jay Baruchel) and a brash bully, Shawrelle (Anthony Mackie), who needs to be taught a lesson. If Maggie’s not exactly a counterweight to such stereotypes, at least she speaks sparse, unwieldy, and vaguely convincing dialogue. In the early moments of Million Dollar baby, this goes a long way.
While Maggie is at first rather cast off to the shadows, her hours at the gym dictated by her schedule at work (she’s a diner waitress, indicated by brief shots of her in uniform), the film focuses on the complex relationship between Frank and Eddie. Their scenes together adroitly blend the performers’ elegance and rough edges, revealing Frank and Eddie’s intricate mesh of masculine postures and insecurities. When, during one notably intimate moment in Frank’s office, he observes the holes in Eddie’s socks (he’s got his feet up on Frank’s desk — not a move you’d imagine anyone else trying), the conversation deftly reveals Frank hardly pays his buddy enough to live on, while also emphasizing the depth and tenderness of their friendship.
As tends to happen in movies, Frank and Eddie’s dissimilarities, as much as their loyalties, make them ideal partners. Still, it’s Frank’s journey at issue here, and so Eddie — the wise and solicitous sidekick — steps back after laying the track for Frank’s soul-saving transformation. Openly intrigued by her persistence, Eddie quietly encourages Frank’s interest; this even as Frank flatly rejects her entreaties that he train her. He’s especially annoyed by her habit of calling him “boss,” which incites his snarls and complaints about girl boxers, the media’s “latest freak show.” When Eddie makes his (roundabout) case for her, it’s based in his understanding of his friend’s limits and needs, namely, Frank could use a daughter as much as Maggie could do with a parent.
The film’s investment in this familial structure is both old and occasionally effective. If they begin with a handshake and a promise to be loyal to one another, their father-daughter dynamic allows for the usual spats and reconciliations. Maggie fights with courage and intelligence, absorbing every lesson Frank even thinks about offering; she’s evidently so talented that, despite her inexperience and late start, she rapidly becomes renowned as a first-round knock-out puncher. The repetitive montagey representation of her suddenly booming career — bell, scuffle, knock-out; bell, scuffle, knock-out — assumes an agreeably jaunty rhythm, leading you to believe that the film is going to be about her triumphant course toward a “million dollar” bout.
This part of the film is fun, despite and because of its triteness; you know what it’s doing, and Maggie’s flat-out charming, alternately ungainly and graceful, vital and vulnerable. Still, the movie falls back on shortcuts. To explain her fortuitous advent into Frank’s life, for instance, it offers a glimpse of Bad Mom Earline (Margo Martindale), accompanied by a couple of Maggie’s siblings, one a surly girl with a baby on her hip. Only appearing after Maggie has bought her a house, Earline is ornery and pathetic, wishing out loud the gift was cash so she might continue to cheat welfare. A trailer-trashy type, Earline resents Maggie’s success and Frank’s intrusion, suggesting that Maggie’s black eye is his doing. Though he remains quiet during this discomforting scene, Frank absorbs the pain Maggie so obviously feels; when she worries afterwards about being abandoned, he assures her, “You’ll always have me.”
This promise serves as the ground for the film’s lengthy final act, which introduces yet another genre into the mix, melodrama. This turn exemplifies the most compelling aspect of any of Eastwood’s generic interventions, in his use of the male character for typically female roles — he’s the object of a stalker in Misty (1971), ridicule in Bronco Billy (1980), obsolescence in Perfect World (1993), sexual desire in Bridges of Madison County, and tabloidy excess in True Crime (1999). For all his famous expertise with gunplay and steely-eyed swagger, as he ages, Eastwood is refining his predilection for emotional nuance and especially, his exploration of Eastwood Character. It helps that his performance is so fine — taut, measured, receding — but still, Maggie ends up a vehicle for Frank’s journey. While Swank surely works her own wonders with the part, Million Dollar Baby is at last an investigation of the macho hero’s decline, as a model for behavior or emblem of national pride. True, the film grants him a mythologizing exit, narrated by Eddie, the only man who understands him. But Frank leaves a problem. After the film’s many assertions of his righteous and regretful man’s legacy, that seems about right.