February 7, 2005

The Toughest Love: Million Dollar Baby

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

5 stars out of 5

I almost wish I could say the critics are wrong about this one. Every so often, a film come along that is so well-received by everyone and their mothers, it almost becomes annoying to have to write one more hymn of praise for it. Yet when the gold is weighed and measured, what really does count at the end is how pure it is.

What has come out of the dross of the Hollywood studio system is a film crafted in subtlety, grace, and style. Clint Eastwood, who helmed, produced, stars in, and even composed music for Million Dollar Baby, is to be credited (as he is by other critics) for the rich pacing, the muted palette of blues and greens that bathe each shot, and tweaking mesmerizing performances out of Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. Paul Haggis' script, based on a collection of short boxing stories entitled "Rope Burns" by F.X. Toole, is a marvelous creation in its own right, weaving characters who live and die a reality few films ever achieve. Eastwood himself turns in a performance of grizzled perfection, providing the film's moral and conflicted center.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a fight trainer who has lived his years as a man too afraid of hurting his fighter to ever give them a chance. He runs a fitness gym with the help of Eddie "Scrap" Dupris (Freeman), an old fighter who reached his boxing limit at fight number 109.

When white-trash waitress Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) shows up one day and asks Frankie to train her, he's disgusted.

"I don't train girls!"
"I'm tough, Mr. Dunn. Tougher than I look."
"Girly, tough...ain't enough."

It's a refrain that echoes shades of Frankie's own life. His estrangement with his daughter finds him attending church nearly every day, asking his priest (Brian F. O'Byrne) questions of faith that simply have no answer grounded in the real, everyday world in which he lives. His life, so burled with time and loss, is empty with dreams of a world that has since passed him by.

Maggie never gives up, never surrenders to a future of waiting tables in nasty dives. She keeps coming back to Frankie's gym. Scrap encourages Maggie to continue training, teaching her what little he knows of boxing practice techniques, and she learns quickly. Frankie keeps his eye on her; horrified by her abuse of technique, he steps in and agrees to train her until she can find a good manager.

It's a good match. Frankie is as tender as he is tough, and his love, like a father, for Maggie grows, whilst her abilities increase with practice and his firm, guiding hand. The inevitability of love puts Frankie into the manager's seat once more, and he finds himself arranging fights for Maggie. Fewer fights, though, as her one punch knockouts estrange them both from getting the good fights. Frankie battles Maggie's strong will in and out of the ring, but her ability is undeniable.

Yet this is not a movie about a scrappy fighter who rises through the ranks to take home the championship. Though elements of that play here, they merely serve the greater story of the triad of lonely people caught up in a broken world. Their connection is more than transitory, however. Eastwood is subtle enough not to bandy about metaphors about boxing and life. Instead, the conflict that builds character, and the tragedy of love taken to its highest peaks of perfection and beauty, are the focus of the camera and the story.

Here, redemption is not found at the end of a championship run, but in the heart of a surrogate daughter. Swank is a wonder to watch. Her eyes glow with intensity and fierce love of boxing, and her sculpted body, honed by months of pre-training, looks the part of a woman who pays dearly in pursuit of a dream. Freeman, often overutilized as the wizened but wise aged friend, is the film's narrator and experiences his own redemption in a subplot that is as rich and nuanced as the main storyline.

The film takes turns that will leave you hurting. Eastwood spares nothing in his pursuit of a conclusion that, in a way, could only have been achieved through pain. But there are also moments of light, and baths of innocence amid the dark grittiness of the world. And there is beauty, even at the end. What Eastwood has wrought should stand every test of time and leave viewers with an abiding knowledge of the deeper conflicts of love.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at February 7, 2005 8:40 AM
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