Raging Bull will always have a spot in my all-time list, but I usually distrust boxing movies because, as with war movies, the camera has a tendency to turn human suffering into kinetic excitement even as it professes to deplore all the savagery. Not that many of them even bother to deplore it, anyway -- for every Fat City swimming in ringside grimness, there are at least a dozen Rocky sequels cheering the pummeling from behind an oversized American flag. Clint Eastwood's new Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie, and probably the most mournfully disillusioned one since 1949's The Set-Up, yet it is also more. It's a bravely old-fashioned genre exercise, an artistic statement of often awe-inspiring lucidity, a summation of a remarkable career, and the perfect closer to the most stimulating cinematic year in quite a while. All that, plus a concluding passage of grace that shames the soulless oppression of The Passion of the Christ, which, come to think of it, was Mel Gibson's uncredited version of an underdog boxing saga, spilled viscera and all.
Adapted by Paul Higgins from Jerry Boyd's novel Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner, the plot has its fatalistic arena in the Hit Pit, a dilapidated gym where grizzled pug Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) toils as trainer and "cut man," stopping the athletes' bleeding long enough so they can finish the round without bleeding over the patrons. Like the pool hall in The Hustler, the gym doubles as sanctuary for have-beens, never-weres and never-wills, broken dreams welled in every pool of darkness. No less battered than his trainees, Frankie is a prime Eastwood loner, hard-bitten and raspy, complete with an estranged daughter who returns his letters unopened and protégées who inevitably ditch him for slicker nig-time managers. The solace he finds via affectionately cranky banter with Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former pupil now working as janitor, and in studying Gaelic in his spare time, is shaken by the entrance of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a scrappy Missouri gal hoping to escape her white-trash roots through boxing, the only thing she "feels good doing."
Of course, Maggie wants Frankie as to train her. Of course, the old guy resents the 31-year-old "girlie" before giving in and steering her to stardom. Of course, these two strays will bond like the father and daughter they should have been. "Of course, of course" is the refrain of the oafish Eastwood detractors who keep nattering on about cliché this and cornball that, all too sadly symptomatic of American critics unable to appreciate their own artists. Eastwood's work, whether in Westerns or policiers, has hardly shrunk from worn genre tropes and, for its first two-thirds, Million Dollar Baby is as tender a recreation of gymnasium chestnuts (punchy hangers-on, beefy European opponents) as anything by such unpretentious studio greats as Raoul Walsh or Don Siegel. The sturdiness of pace and composition that marks the director as possibly the last link to classical Hollywood is in full view in every frame, the jazziness-skirting integrity to image and character never too tight to allow a full minute of discussion about socks.
Yet it is the break in the narrative that kicks off the final movement that rockets the movie out of its Golden Boy arc and into a profoundly subversive richness. [Warning: spoilers ahead.] In her climatic bout with a sinewy Teutonic champion, Maggie suffers a freak accident and becomes paralyzed, confined to a hospital bed with Frankie watching over her. Up to then, Million Dollar Baby is a lovingly realized genre piece along the lines of True Crime and Space Cowboys, applying old-school aesthetics to connect to the characters' sense of worn life. As they are faced with tragedy, the film burns quietly subversive as no other Eastwood film has since the indelible laceration of Unforgiven -- the incident crystallizes not only the characters' awareness of their shared consciousness, but also the star-auteur's attitude towards the genre he has worked in for decades, to say nothing of his (too often simplistically read) image of understated machismo, which has long now hardened into icon.
For all his purity of line, Eastwood has rarely embodied the kind of simplistic phallocentric posturing his enemies so often accuse him of -- in fact, most of his films are about nothing less than deconstructing the quintessential male impulses that, in the climaxes of White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven and Mystic River, to name just a few, prove destructive. In a movie riddled with missed opportunities and possible second chances, nothing is more transforming than Frankie's relationship with the paralyzed Maggie, which shakes him out of his complacently crotchety slump to reevaluate such notions as family and faith. The unsentimental dependence between Eastwood's lined gauntness and Swank's bruised rawness (itself a reversal of her Boys Don't Cry fragility) provides one of the year's purest, most heartbreaking love stories, where a hillbilly upstart and a 74-year-old "fucking pagan" find painful serenity together in the face of death. When his character weeps, Eastwood's tears point not only to the anguished spiritual rebirth of a gnarled man dealing with God on his own terms, but also to a cathartic rupture into the emotional armor of his own persona.
The shift in the characters' emotions is daringly mirrored in the film's stylistic structure, the tone shifting from boxing action to terse weepie, from shadowboxing movement to clarified stasis, from masculine to feminine and, most hauntingly, from physical to spiritual. Never uttered, redemption lies in all the characters' minds, whether it is trying to make a dent in an uncaring world, feeling from old sins, or simply surviving with the weight of the past. Some people may confuse Eastwood's spare elegance and economy of means with aridity, but to me they are qualities of a growly humanist sensitive to the way people relate to each other in life just as he is overwhelmingly aware of the pangs of mortality. The two aspects fuse in the languid, almost ghostly track-in that closes the film, a devastating shot that, in its simplicity and soulfulness, epitomizes Eastwood's art and leaves the screen transcendentally placid, purified.
Reviewed January 11 2005.