Even before Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for Best Picture, it united critics across the spectrum, from middlebrow to aesthete, in almost universal praise. It was "nearly flawless," "a breathtaking human drama," "the cinematic equivalent of Hemingway." This consensus was challenged by only a few scattered naysayers, who described the film as "celluloid hooey," "phony, simplistic, and cheap," and "a compendium of every cliché from every bad boxing movie ever made."
The maddening thing about Million Dollar Baby is this: Both sets of critics were right. The movie is simultaneously conventional and subversive, broad and nuanced, shamelessly manipulative and genuinely moving, a cheap sucker punch and a work of real moral weight. By chance or design, Eastwood produced a true rarity: a hackneyed masterpiece.
Released on video today, Million Dollar Baby spends its first 90 minutes telling that most familiar of boxing stories, about the scrappy, down-and-out young fighter who, with nothing but heart and the help of a crusty trainer, rises all the way to a title bout for the world championship. The film's quirk, and it's not a terribly imaginative one, is that the boxer is a woman. (Now, a movie about a fighter who was well-to-do, that would be an interesting deparature.) Maggie Fitgerald (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old waitress from the Missouri Ozarks who shows up in the L.A. gym of former "cut man" and part-time trainer/manager Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), and essentially refuses to leave until he agrees to train her. He holds out for a while, offering one or another gruff variation on the theme "I don't train girls." But eventually he gives in, moved by her obvious spunk and by gentle prodding from his avuncular, blind-in-one-eye janitor, "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman). Within a year, Maggie has learned foot- and fist-work, has honed her body to a lethal leanness, and has begun winning pro bouts, most of them by knockout. Eighteen months into her partnership with Frankie, she is fighting for the WBA welterweight title of the world and she has her opponent on the ropes.
It is at this point, when most movies would be cuing up the confetti, tears of joy, and celebratory anthem, that Million Dollar Baby offers its big twist. (Those who have somehow managed not to learn what it is, and hope to retain that innocence, should stop reading now.) Maggie does not win the fight, but is instead sucker-punched from behind and crumples to the canvas. When she awakes, she is paralyzed from the neck down, with no hope of recovery. In time, she loses a leg to gangrene; not long after that she loses the will to live. She asks Frankie to help her die, and ultimately he does.
This is not, needless to say, how most movies about plucky underdogs fighting long odds choose to end. Yet unconventional as it may seem at first glance, Million Dollar Baby is, to a considerable degree, a stitching together of two familiar cinematic types, the triumphal sports movie and the incurable illness tearjerker. The first of these in particular is told with a conventionality bordering on mass plagiarism. Eastwood plays the Burgess Meredith role of lovable cuss; Swank offers a grittier version of her girl-who-won't-give-up performance in 1994's The Next Karate Kid (imagine the odds you could've gotten on her being a two-time Best Actress winner back then); and Morgan Freeman plays the Morgan Freeman character--which is to say, a kindly, self-effacing old black man with reserves of quiet wisdom and a wonderful aptitude for voiceover.
The themes are so neat and obvious they could form the basis of a screenwriting syllabus: Frankie has an estranged daughter who returns his letters unopened; Maggie lost her father at an early age. Inevitably, he is soon telling her "You're a good daughter," while she says, "You remind me of my father." Nor is Frankie's guilt limited to the mysterious transgression (we never learn what it was) that cost him his daughter. Years back, Scrap was a fighter, and Frankie was with him during the bout in which he lost sight in his eye. Frankie still blames himself for not stopping the fight and is now overprotective of all his fighters, especially Maggie.
Scrap's narration, too, is littered with heavy-handed metaphors. Twice he describes wounds "too close to the bone" to stop the bleeding: the first time, referring to a lacerated cheekbone; the second, to Frankie's relationship with his daughter. A grotesque white-trash family is supplied for Maggie so that we can eventually enjoy watching her tell them off; an innocent imbecile named "Danger" is provided for the gym, so that we can have the pleasure of seeing Scrap defend him by (rather implausibly) knocking out the twentysomething prizefighter who picked on him.
Perhaps most frustratingly, the crucial twist when Maggie is paralyzed is staged like something out of a comic book. Her injury isn't the result of an accident or a clean blow or any of the other common dangers that arise when two people are asked to punch one another in the face repeatedly. No, it's the result of an Evil Act by an Evil Person. Maggie's opponent, Billie the Blue Bear, is a "former prostitute from East Berlin [with] a reputation for being the dirtiest fighter in the ranks." (Those of you who thought that after Rocky IV we'd seen the last of killer commies in the ring, think again.) Judging from the excerpts we see of two of Billie's bouts, her boxing strategy seems to consist exclusively of elbowing her opponents in the face, throwing them to the canvas by their necks, and then punching them in the head while they're still on the ground. The idea that a fighter this dirty would be allowed to participate in sanctioned boxing (scratch that, women's boxing), let alone could be world champion, is ridiculous. The blow that paralyzes Maggie is, of course, a shot from behind that takes place at least ten seconds after the bell has rung. It's almost a surprise that the script didn't allow Billie to bring a tire iron into the ring.
Million Dollar Baby, in other words, ought to be a cheap exercise in audience manipulation. But it's not--or rather, it's not only that. For all its clichés and hamfisted metaphors and overwrought melodrama, there is a grim magnificence to the film, a seriousness of purpose that elevates it not only above the schlock it might easily have been, but into the upper tiers of recent American film.
In large part this is a victory of execution over conception. Eastwood tells the story so well, and draws such committed performances from his co-stars, that there's little opportunity to snicker at the innate silliness. Morgan Freeman may be the best voiceover artist alive, his world-weary humanism perfectly modulated to the tone of this film. In his mouth even the tritest, most overwritten analogy feels grounded in experience. Along with a haunting, minimalist piano score (composed by Eastwood himself), Freeman's wistful narration ties together Million Dollar Baby's heroic and tragic phases and offers the first signal that it will not be a typical sports movie.
Hilary Swank, too, is doing what she does better than anyone, narrow though it may be: playing, as she did in Boys Don't Cry, a poor, rural girl who fulfills her desire for self-determination by acting like a boy. It's no coincidence that Swank has been exceptional in both roles--nor that she has had less success playing more stereotypically feminine characters. She frequently seems a little uncomfortable and out of place onscreen, a tendency that has interfered with some performances but has deepened others. Her face, meanwhile, with its strong jaw and outsized features, is simultaneously indomitable and wide open to whatever injuries the world might offer.
Eastwood's performance, while not quite up to Freeman's and Swank's, is nonetheless powerful. For 40 years he has made an asset of his guardedness, constructing (and, on occasion, subverting) an icon out of his terse manner and implacable looks. As Frankie, he plays a character who has a reason (even if we never know exactly what it is) for keeping his distance, and Eastwood handles the gradual erosion of that distance with subtlety. When it finally collapses altogether, one can almost imagine that it is Eastwood, not Frankie, who has at last let down his guard completely.
The star of Million Dollar Baby, however, is not Eastwood-the-actor, but Eastwood-the-director, who in his mid-seventies has rather unexpectedly emerged as one of the most serious filmmakers in Hollywood. One can see in the movie many of Eastwood's own virtues: It is lean, stoic, and deliberate, frugal with its emotions but not uncaring. Throughout the good, the bad, and the unthinkable its characters endure, allowing themselves little in the way of either celebration or self-pity.
For decades, Eastwood has been one of the few American actors who frequently forswears a romantic interest in his films, and this amorous reticence suffuses Million Dollar Baby. Not a single character in the film is attached, or appears to hold out hope of ever being so. (Even the members of Maggie's repulsive family are all single.) It's as if romantic love has been banished from the world, leaving behind only the bonds of friendship, which are themselves portrayed as almost too complicated to sustain.
Increasingly, it seems that there is very little middle ground in American motion pictures between the extremes of cynical nihilism and fatuous uplift, as if filmmaking were a line with, say, Quentin Tarantino at one end and Ron Howard at the other. Million Dollar Baby escapes that continuum altogether, however. It is an utterly sincere and earnest work, but one devoid of all the usual, reassuring bromides. Not only is there no cure for Maggie, there is no redemption for Frankie, no comfort to be found in other friendships or solace in the knowledge that he has done the right thing.
It is on this last point that many of the political broadsides against the film's "pro-euthanasia" message seem to me to rather miss the mark. Yes, Frankie honors Maggie's wish to die, and yes, this is presented as the "right" thing to do--insofar as such a thing could possibly exist under the circumstances. But, like everything else in the film, it comes with a steep price. Like Will Munney in Unforgiven, Frankie does what he does in the full knowledge that it will cost him his soul, and that afterwards he will never be able to rejoin moral society. (As I've written elsewhere, it's ironic that Unforgiven has been read as anti-vigilantism and Million Dollar Baby as pro-euthanasia, even though the two follow a nearly identical arc.)
Million Dollar Baby may not have been the best film of last year. (For my money that would have been this or this.) But for all its faults, it is a mature and serious film by a director belatedly coming into his full powers, a reminder that even in Hollywood there is an alternative to empty irony and sentimental hackery.
The Home Movies List:
Fistful of Eastwood
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). The final film of Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy features a picaresque adventure in the foreground and a biting indictment of war in general--and the American Civil War in particular--as backdrop. Much of the latter was cut out of the English language release, but restored (somewhat unevenly) in a special edition DVD released last year.
Magnum Force (1973). Eastwood's transformation from conservative hero to conservative bugaboo is usually traced to his revisionist western Unforgiven. But arguably he never subverted his iconic vigilante persona more aggressively than in this first Dirty Harry sequel, in which his Inspector Callahan takes on rogue cops in his own department.
Unforgiven (1992). Not as good as its reputation, but Eastwood's most ambitious directorial effort up to that point (though, remarkably, it was already his sixteenth stint behind the lens, with nine more since).
A Perfect World (1993). Half-perfect. Kevin Costner does the best work of his career as an escaped convict driving across Texas with an only partly unwilling young hostage. But the parallel storyline featuring Eastwood and Laura Dern as two of the law enforcement agents chasing them is strained and tedious.
Mystic River (2003). Eastwood-the-star sat this one out, but Eastwood-the-director managed a near-masterpiece that was undermined by Tim Robbins's lame performance in a still lamer role as lunatic-cum-plot-device.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.