Starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan FreemanDirected by Clint Eastwood 132 minutes Rated PG-13
During the four years he served as Secretary of State, Colin Powell kept in his office a plaque that read: “Above all things, men respect restraint.” Whatever his political inclinations might be, Clint Eastwood would seem to agree with Mr. Powell’s plaque, because the septuagenarian’s prowess as a director lies very much in the restraint he brings to cinema. Like Hemingway’s best stories, every hint and word of Eastwood’s recent pictures is taut with tension not so much because of what is said and done, but because of what has not yet been said or done. In no film is this feat more lyrically captured than in last year’s Million Dollar Baby.
The story is as bare-bones as its setting: Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a
retired boxing trainer and manager who owns a gym somewhere just in or out of Los Angeles. Scrap (Morgan Freeman) lives in a room at the gym and apparently runs the place in exchange for rent. When aspiring amateur boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) enters Frankie’s gym/world, the viewer knows two things: She will want Frankie to train her and he will not want to do it. The requisite dalliance that ensues (“I
don’t train girls”) is one of the film’s two unfortunate nods to formulaic storytelling (the other being the mean-spirited portrayal of Maggie’s family as trailer park buffoons.) Eventually, of course, Frankie agrees to be Maggie’s trainer and manager and it is here where the film pushes off from the deep end of the pool.
Maggie and Frankie’s relationship, like many beautiful friendships on- and off-screen, is a study in replacements. Frankie’s daughter returns his letters unopened and whatever he has done to warrant this unforgiving torment leads him to Mass every single morning. Maggie’s family is as mean as they are poor, and actually are ashamed that their female kin has taken up boxing. As Maggie says after a painful visit to her mother’s house, “You’re all I got, Frankie.” It is this scene, wherein Maggie and Frankie are riding in a car at night and are lit only by the rolling headlights of oncoming cars, that elucidates the desperate intimacy between the two outcasts. By what they have done and what they have failed to do—neither of which is made clear to the viewer and may not even be known by the characters themselves — Frankie and Maggie have forsaken everyone who, at some point at least, has loved them. The bond that develops between them flourishes because their love has no other place to go and neither do they.
Perhaps giving undue deference to the F.X. Toole short stories on which the script is based, screenwriter Paul Haggis’s depiction of Scrap struggles to dodge the bullet of quiet minstrelsy that so often befalls the typical Hollywood Negro. Unlike the other two characters we come to know, Scrap is wholly content with his lot in life. He has no ostensible yearning or desires, despite owning only two pairs of socks. When Scrap physically defends a White boxer who just recently addressed him with a racial slur, even the most ardent fans of Driving Miss Daisy must wince. Ironically, however, it is Morgan Freeman’s steely performance, contrasted with the easy give-and-take dialogue between Scrap and Frankie, that makes Scrap not only believable, but knowable.
More impressive than what each actor gives on screen is what he or she holds back. Hilary Swank’s performance moves us most when she hardly moves at all; like every great actress in American history, her eyes carry the lead role. (Witness the light flicker of fight left in her gaze when she tells Frankie that she has been “frozen.”) In the person of Frankie Dunn, Eastwood’s characteristically clenched jaw bespeaks a toughness born in fights lost, not won. When confronted about the one-eye blinding fight that ended his boxing career, Scrap answers, “I had my chance.”
No one argues their fates in Million Dollar Baby. Indeed, the film’s foundation of Irish Catholic fatalism reaches beyond the screen and into the theater: Million Dollar Baby challenges us to meet the film on its terms — where sick dogs get shot and dancing boxers get frozen, where an old man’s guilt is both weight and buoy. It is in this quiet and dark place where performances of little conceit and great restraint can command our respect.