Oh, but this is a sucker punch of a movie, harsh and sere and so thoroughly unsentimental that it seems to have active contempt for lesser movies that pander to the audience’s desire to walk out of the theater feeling good and happy and that all is right in the world. This is like winning the lottery and getting hit by a train on your way to cash in your ticket. This is not for anyone who feels the need to escape real life at the multiplex. This is real life, as real as film gets. You are warned.
It seems, for a long stretch, that Million Dollar Baby is gonna be a Rocky kinda thing, triumph of the human spirit and all that, if with a particularly severe elegance to it. Maggie Fitzgerald is a tough hillbilly kid from the Ozarks who’s wended her way to Los Angeles, where she waits tables and boxes. Actually, that’s being generous. As worn-out trainer Frankie Dunn discovers when she wanders into his gym, she’s 31 — hardly a kid, certainly not in the boxing arena — and she’s had no training whatsoever, which quickly becomes obvious. In fact, she can’t box, but she loves the sport anyway and she’s willing to learn, and she wants Frankie to train her.
The sober, gritty elegance comes in the uncompromising performances from Hilary Swank (The Core, Insomnia), as Maggie, and Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Space Cowboys), as Frankie. (Eastwood also directed, from short stories by F.X. Toole gracefully adapted for the screen by TV writer Paul Haggis.) These are two lonely, cantankerous people, difficult to like in some ways, impossible not to like in others — she’s maybe a little bit unrealistic about the opportunities open to her in boxing, though the pleasure she takes in it, in the rigor of the training and in the structure the discipline gives her life, is heartbreaking; he’s no longer at the top of his game, maybe not her best chance at the success she craves, but the renewed engagement with the world she offers him is gratifying to him and to the audience. Swank and Eastwood just absolutely refuse to let anything maudlin or insincere into these characters or this relationship, which is so unusual to see on film: a meeting of the hearts and minds between a man and a woman that is not romantic or familial in nature. All opportunities for mawkishness — like the fact that Maggie is sort of serving as a stand-in for Frankie’s estranged daughter, and Frankie is kind of substituting for Maggie’s long-dead father — are utterly ignored.
And the film could have cruised along just fine with that, with a spunky take-a-chance-on-life, live-your-dream kind of message, done up perfectly right by an expert team of storytellers. But Million Dollar Baby has much greater ambitions than that: a desire to elevate the triumph-of-the-human-spirit cliché inevitably inherent in sports-movies-that-aren’t-really-about-sports into something almost… well, not religious, per se, though Frankie ends up finding the hard answer to life, the universe, and everything that he’d been seeking from his priest and not getting. But… spiritual, yes, in the nondenominational, irreligious sense, in the sense of what the human spirit actually is that all those other inferior sports movies have been going on about all this time. Sure, yeah, the human spirit triumphs, Baby asks, but why should we care? People can go through their whole lives apparently free of the triumphant spirit that comes from pitching a perfect game or sinking a hole in one or whatever — Baby, turning the sports film on its head, wants us to consider that triumphing is not necessarily to be celebrated but that the not-triumphing is to be pitied tragedy.
Ya gotta stick with it, this perfect, perfect film, for it seems to take a while to get going, and it seems to have some elements that appear superfluous — I wondered for much of the film’s running time, for instance, whether the voiceover by Frankie’s buddy Scrap (Morgan Freeman: The Big Bounce, Bruce Almighty, as excellent as his castmates) was really needed. But it all is, well, triumphant in the end, all comes together and makes sense and sucker-punches you in the gut in a way that you won’t be expecting, and won’t be able to forget. It may well even inspire you not to let your own shot at the title bout slip away.
Oscars Best Picture 2004