Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood has been a force of nature in the movie business for longer than I can remember. By the time I was cognizant of something called the movies, Inspector Harry Callahan was already, some three films on, getting long in the tooth. The largely anonymous gunslinger he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns seemed like ancient history. And by the time he played either of those great roles, he had paid his journeyman dues, appearing to a greater or lesser extent in a string of undistinguished pictures with titles like Escapade in JapanAmbush at Cimarron Pass and, of course, Francis in the Navy.

And yet old Clint Eastwood somehow managed to stay relevant. His early films aged well. Once you could catch The Good, the Bad & the Ugly on video in its original widescreen version, rather than cropped for TV, it seemed a revelation. And Dirty Harry, dismaying as it might have seemed at the time, has proved to be one of the most enduring and influential genre pictures of its day; it’s hard to imagine Death Wish and even Taxi Driver without it. He turned director with 1971’s Play Misty For Me, then made a string of modest but solid pictures in a variety of genres — High Plains DrifterPale RiderHeartbreak Ridge, even the jazz biopic Bird. It wasn’t until Unforgiven — on one level a forceful deconstruction of his career as antihero — that Hollywood really recognized him as a creative force — and handed him the Oscar.

Screenwriter Paul Haggis has been around the block a time or two himself. He made his career on shows like thirtysomethingand Due South but always tended toward darker material — according to an unofficial bio, he wrote a skit for The Tracey Ullman Show called “P.S. Your Wife is in Hell,” about a priest faking last rites, that was waylaid by the Fox censors before making it to air. In a way, it’s not so surprising that his Million Dollar Baby script, based on short stories by boxing veteran F.X. Toole, would cater as specifically as it does to Eastwood’s strengths and favored themes — he says he wrote it with Eastwood in mind. And the resonance with Eastwood’s resume is powerful and undeniable. The dialogue seems to be written just for his gravelly delivery, the characters are crafted to take advantage of his mentor status, and the big plot twist (which won’t be spoiled here) is engineered to make the most of his public history.

All this throat-clearing is just to address the idea of Clint Eastwood as an auteur. He’s been an actor, director, producer, even composer, yes — but never a credited screenwriter. And yet if you look at his body of work, the motifs are clear and undeniable. He is the nomad, the man with no name and no family. Regrets, he’s had a few. (Once, he was the man who failed to save the life of JFK.) Lately, he has become the elder, full of both wisdom and self-doubt. He’s long struggled to comply with the laws of man and to respect the absence of God. On occasion, when it’s necessary, he acts as God’s surrogate.

Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie, and it makes boxing symbolic of everything that’s counterintuitive about the world. To win a fight, you move into the punches. A move to your left starts with your right foot. To make the most money, you don’t necessarily play your best game. Etcetera. It’s also a very dark, moody piece — it’s clear every step of the way that the protagonist is not Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald, the scrappy, energetic boxer, but Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn, her world-weary, quietly regretful trainer. And Haggis’s dialogue is perfectly calibrated to take advantage of Swank’s earnest vulnerability and Eastwood’s steeliness. “I got nobody but you, Frankie,” she declares at one point. The response comes back sure and steady: “Well, you have me.” Later, she asks, “Are you gonna leave me?” And his answer is nothing short of a declaration of love: “Never.” Those lines carry a heavy load in the context of the relationship between two people who come to mean the world to each other; they’re also very economical in terms of words, and it’s a spare strategy that suits the movie well.

Those emotional beats would become ponderous if the film weren’t so clever in other ways. Action sometimes happens just outside of the frame — instead of cutting to his reaction shot as Frankie declines to answer one of Maggie’s many questions, the camera stays on her face instead. Similarly, instead of showing Maggie delivering a KO in the ring, the camera will stay on Frankie, first removing and then quickly replacing the wooden stool in her corner. The film seems deeply ambivalent about the sport itself, balancing an appreciation of the mechanics and pure physical prowess involved with what seems like a distaste for the actual fact of boxing as it exists in the world — more than once, Eastwood’s camera very deliberately takes in the spectacle of the long-legged and barely dressed woman who strut through the ring like Hooters girls with numbered cards announcing the next round, a reminder that although it’s tough women taking to the ring, they’re serving at the pleasure of the men who train them, manage them, and pay to see the fights. Another scene has Frankie and Maggie enjoying a meal in clear view of the fighting, establishing an effective contrast between the comfort outside the ring and the brutality inside.

It’s unclear whether Frankie himself has many misgivings about the violence inherent in the sport. He seems to accept it, and is even willing to exploit it — though protecting his protégés from brutalization in the ring is an all-consuming task. But Frankie Dunn is a churchgoing man, and that, finally, is the crux of Million Dollar Baby. He can’t take dogma at face value, and he badgers his exasperated priest with half-serious questions about faith and the nature of God. But what’s clear is that he considers himself a sinner and seeks redemption for his past mistakes. And there’s his moral dilemma. By the end of the movie, Frankie is faced with a terrible decision, and when he seeks the holy man’s advice, he’s told flatly that what he’s considering is itself a sin — an act of defiance of God’s will. When Eastwood makes up his mind to act anyway, it’s unclear whether he’s turning his back on God or just on another man’s idea of God. But he’s acknowledging his obligations in a way that’s almost unbearably moving.

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