' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Million Dollar Baby

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Great Movies: Million Dollar Baby

"I only ever met one man I wouldn't want to fight." This is the first line of "Million Dollar Baby" as spoken by Scrap Dupris (Morgan Freeman) in voice-over. The man he's referring to is Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, the "best cut man in the business". Moments after this we see Frankie hiking through the back hallway of the arena where his main fighter has just won a match. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) appears and walks with him. She is a fighter, too, and wonders if he would be interested in training in her. He advises he doesn't train girls. "You sure?" wonders Maggie, never losing her little smile. "People seen me fight say I'm pretty tough." Frankie replies, simply and harshly, "Girlie tough ain't enough." And he's gone, and so is Maggie's smile. This scene seems simple, perhaps what one would expect from a movie about a female boxer, but its complexity stems from the fact that what we're seeing sets up all to come. It sets us forth on a voyage into one of the greatest films ever made.

Frankie is the owner of a dirty, little boxing gym in Los Angeles. Scrap is its manager and he was once a boxer and Frankie his trainer. But Scrap lost his eye in his 108th - and final - match. Frankie didn't throw in the towel. He blames himself. He's never said this but "he doesn't have to," explains Scrap. "I can see it in his face every time he looks at me."

One day Scrap notices someone in the gym. "Who's your new girl?" he asks Frankie. It is Maggie - a waitress from Missouri who "grew up knowing only one thing - she was trash". She has arrived at the gym despite his previous dismissal. He continues to say he won't help her and she continues to show up and train as best she knows. Scrap assists her and she slowly improves. It is inevitable, of course, that Frankie will take her on as his student but the movie does not rush us into this development. Frankie is resolute, which we see in his daily confrontations with a Catholic priest, but not as resolute as Maggie.

When he finally agrees to become - as she puts it - her "boss" late at night and in the shadows of the gymnasium it takes place in a scene so perfect that it leaves me stirred to the absolute depths of my emotions. Scenes this magnificent come along only once in a vast while and should be appreciated to the utmost and so I will say no more of it.

This is a film about three characters, the events that happen to them, their reactions to those events, and nothing more. What happens to these characters happens only as a result of what they choose. The moviemakers do not push them in the directions they desire. Not one of the three main characters at any point in the movie's two hour running time takes a misstep or makes a false decision.

The story is incredibly tight, told only within the worlds of this trio. The supporting players are, for the most part, well drawn (Maggie's family is a bit too over the top) but they only matter in relation to how they interact with our three main characters. Even during a crucial, heartbreaking scene late in the movie when Frankie visits the Catholic priest (Brian F. O'Byrne) for advice and the priest tells Frankie that he must "leave" the situation which they are discussing "with God" the movie still does not betray its story and knows even God himself cannot factor into its outcome. "She's not asking for God's help," Frankie says with tears in his eyes. "She's asking for mine."

It is a film with many themes, perhaps the most important being Fathers & Daughters. Frankie had a daughter who he hasn't seen for some time. He writes her a letter every week and every week they come back return to sender. In Maggie he sees a chance to right whatever wrongs he may have made. Maggie's father was a man she loved very much and he has since passed. The remaining members of her family are hardly present in her life, despite her efforts to care for them. "I got nobody but you, Frankie," she says in a majestic scene set at night in Frankie's car.

The acting is uniformly outstanding. Frankie and Scrap are portrayed, of course, as longtime friends and Eastwood and Freeman make this portrayal genuine. Scrap calls out Frankie for the way he mismanaged his previous fighter's shot at the championship and the angered look Frankie gets you realize is one that only could have been caused by Scrap. Alternately when the two men have a chat on the edge of Scrap's cot you can see the years and the mileage behind both men and how they came to be in the same place. And Swank shows Maggie to not only be fiercely resolute but kind-hearted and genuine, nearly to a fault. Notice her reaction when Scrap shows her his "living quarters". But the few times in this movie when Maggie is hurt, and those moments only come when she is pushed to the absolute brink, she makes us feel that hurt and her desire to fight back, to not give in. We are right alongside her for every second she is onscreen. I do not hesitate to say this may well end up being the finest female acting turn of the entire decade.

The script by Paul Haggis - which was based on two short stories by F.X. Toole - is modern writing at its zenith. It is phenomenal to witness how nearly each line works both simply in the context of the scene where it appears and then on a deeper level - either in the meaning of the film itself or for something that will occur later.

Eastwood's direction does not veer from his typical style, which is to say lean, mean, never pumped up, no show-offy flourishes. (It was Tim Robbins who said in the wake of "Mystic River" that Eastwood never did more than two or three takes.) The final act almost feels like a documentary. The camera merely watches and contemplates the characters and what happens to them, refusing to force-feed even a bit of it. At this point so much time has been taken to establish our characters and we care so deeply for them that no extraneous gestures are needed from the director. All which happens to them is powerful enough on its own.

The fim's music - written by Eastwood himself - should be considered a how-to in composing for a movie. It is restrained but elegant. It underscores and highlights but never cues you emotionally or tells you what to think and when to think it.

In the end what comes to pass is something which was foretold all the way back at the beginning. No one wanted to fight with Frankie. No one but Maggie. She wasn't merely "girly tough" but tougher than anyone to ever enter his life. "My daddy used to say I fought to get into this world," Maggie says at an important moment. "And I'd fight to get out."

Roger Ebert once used the following words to describe a different film but I will use them in conclusion here as no sentence written could ever more perfectly summarize "Million Dollar Baby" and what it means to me: "Once you have seen movie characters who are alive, it's harder to care about the robots in their puppet shows."

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