When we meet Maggie Fitzgerald, aspirant welterweight women’s champion of the world, we do not see her, not exactly, because we see what she sees, a point-of-view shot rushing forward toward a boxing arena. Then the camera flips and Maggie, shrouded in shadows, steps out of those shadows in a silent whoosh, the kind that flutters your heart before you know what hit it, from the dark into the light.
That’s where much of “Million Dollar Baby” takes place – in the spaces between dark and light. You see it in the immediate aftermath of this introductory shot, as Maggie walks with boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), cheerily begging for him to train her, in a hallway barely illuminated by creaky overhead lights, marching into and back out of shadows.
You can't have light without darkness, of course, as the saying goes, a pedantic one perhaps, but that is given extraordinary meaning in "Million Dollar Baby", where its characters spend many daylight hours in the sweaty comfort of the Hit Pit gym that Frankie owns, hitting speed bags and trading barbs, but where the real emotional gristle can only be found in the dark, whether late night hours in the gym after everyone has gone or in a hospital room late in the movie where even Maggie doesn't give in to the dark by counterpunching fate. "Million Dollar Baby" is a boxing movie, yes, but it is also a character-centric movie, underlined by its myriad nighttime shots where only characters seem to fill the frame.
These characters are familiar. Maggie is a hopeful pugilist who lost her father, the only person who really ever loved her, long ago. Frankie just drove away a boxer who was his best shot for a title and drove away his daughter long ago. It only makes narrative sense that they unite, professionally and personally, becoming protege and mentor, surrogate daughter and surrogate father. And then there is Scrap Dupris (Morgan Freeman), ostensibly the gym's manager but really the story's scribe, on hand to observe the proceedings and record them for posterity, revealed in the closing shot where he is writing a letter to Frankie's daughter, after Frankie has disappeared into the ether, who has presumably sought her father out. That reveal adds depth to re-watches of "Million Dollar Baby" and cancels out objections of plausibility.
"Million Dollar Baby" is viewed through the eyes of Scrap who is viewing the story through the prism of time, rendering it as something like a fable, evoked in the boxer who Maggie inevitably meets for the championship of the world. That opponent is nicknamed The Blue Bear, which sounds like something out of an ancient gaelic myth, and is why The Blue Bear's highly (obviously) illegal methods might not pass muster in terms of traditional plot holes but are excused in this re-telling. Scrap is heightening for effect, yet also excusing elements that don't concern his story, whether it is what becomes of The Blue Bear or why the fawning public that is occasionally hinted at as Maggie achieves roaring success is never really glimpsed. Scrap limits his tale to the main players, which he weaves with a gravelly poetry.
This intimacy is evoked in Eastwood's famously frugal direction. The training montage is a staple of these sorts of films, but when it arrives here, as it must, after Maggie has convinced Frankie to take her on as a pupil, its presentation is not only low-key rather than rah rah, underlined by Eastwood’s minimal, almost mournful, score, but presented not as the hero's assemblage of her superpowers but as the forming of a bond. This bond is further evinced in dialogue exchangers where the two become like boxers sparring outside the ring, dancing around one another.
The best scenes in the movie often involve that byplay, like the ways in which Maggie sunnily tests Frankie's exasperated patience, transforming that patented Eastwood squint into a comic reaction rather than an impending threat. In an early scene, Maggie shows up at the Hit Pit, trying, once again, to earn Frankie's help, repeatedly calling him "Boss", which he can't stand.
"If I stop calling you 'boss' will you train me?"
"Then I may as well keep calling you it."
That last line is perfect. It's a choppy sentence, concluding in an ill-placed "it", which is why it sounds just right, like something Maggie Fitzgerald of the Missouri Ozarks would say, and which Swank has Maggie say so incredulously. Frankie and Scrap's numerous exchanges, meanwhile, were not included in the original stories by F.X. Toole because in those original stories the characters' respective narratives were split up. So, screenwriter Paul Haggis invented their dialogue, transforming them into longtime friends whose friendliness often reveals itself through comic antagonizing, underlined by the deadpan reactions of the two old acting pros. After one verbal round, Frankie tells Scrap to "get the hell out of my office", which Scrap does, but watch Freeman in this moment and how he has his character give a little "Well, what do you want me to do?" shrug that then gives way to humored smile.
Often the back and forths between Frankie and Scrap relate directly to the gym's finances, whether it is members paying their dues or splurging for brand name bleach. Indeed, there is a lot of talk of money in "Million Dollar Baby", not in a get rich away but an economically anxious way, with Frankie chastising Scrap for buying brand name bleach and imploring Maggie to set aside savings. Indeed, while Haggis might overdo Maggie's "trash" roots, there are moments when her scrounging for every penny truly hits home, like the shot at her dinner table where she spills out an entire jar of change onto her table and rifles through it. This shot is lit just by a dingy lamp, which makes her look like some desperate prospector from a bygone era.
At first glance, Swank's character is not filled with grand dimension because what she is what she's going after. The script tries to fill that out with her family, but Haggis's gravest writing misstep is making Maggie's family so gruesomely monstrous that they veer into caricature, one of the details I overlooked on my first experience with the movie because I was so far gone into it but that plainly sticks out on re-watches. But what also sticks out is the way Swank fills out Maggie with a humility that is at odds with her fearsome presence in the ring.
Consider the moment early in the film, before Frankie agrees to tutor her and when he is still overseeing Big Willie, the future champ. Maggie stands and watches Frankie and Big Willie work; Frankie catches her watching them; Maggie lowers her head, embarrassed,
Swank plays Maggie as fiercely earnest and earnestly fierce, no in-between, not so much repressing the gruesome past of her family, or even having gotten past, but simply, to quote Lloyd Dobler, deciding to be in a good mood. She does not allow that demeanor to drain away in the final act, where a horrific injury leaves her paralyzed, not even in the eventual deathbed scenes, which would have been such an easy choice, but to actually maintain the fierce earnestness she's had all along. The decision to take her own life, and to ask Frankie to do it, while inevitably politicized, is strictly personal.
Yet because in her paralysis she unable to end her life on her own, she asks for Frankie's help, making the decision personal for him too, leaving him in a moral bind, as the narrative gives itself almost entirely over to him. If Maggie has brought him into the light, ending her life will send him re-plunging into darkness, which is where the movie ends, as Eastwood's closing shot mimics an earlier shot set at a roadside diner, only this time with the windows fogged, as if what we are seeing is not reality but a hazy dream, a dream in which he be left to wander for an eternity.