Million Dollar Baby’s Tale of Aging Fighters shows that Clint Eastwood’s touch only gets lighter with time
Clint Eastwood began deconstructing his vengeance-icon film persona about 20 years ago, and folks barely noticed. In the midst of an otherwise fairly standard policer, Tightrope (1984), Eastwood played a miserable, taciturn ex-cop who worries that he’s not all that different in essence from the sex-crime murderer he’s chasing. The film’s dramatic peak has Eastwood’s inverted Dirty Harry—a failed father and husband whose manliness is increasingly defined by weird sex and retribution—tearing his room apart in a rage of self-hate.
As with Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby finds a longer-toothed Eastwood refining his continuing project of reconciling Clint, death-dealing action man, and Clint, repentant elder mensch. It’s the story of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a weathered Irish Catholic ex-fighter turned gym owner and reluctant trainer of Maggie (Hilary Swank), a determined and talented female boxer past her prime fighting years (she’s 31). And as such, Baby is about the humbling limitations of age and fate told by a near master of emotional gray tones. Based on a collection of boxing tales by F.X. Toole, the film is admirably understated and deliberately small in scope, with a lingering melancholic afterburn.
Although it ostensibly takes place in the present, Baby really exists in the alternative neo-Great Depression universe Eastwood returns to every few years (Every Which Way But Loose, ’78; Honkytonk Man, ’82; Pink Cadillac, ’89; Mystic River, ’03). And in keeping with this atmosphere, Hitchcock alum Henry Bumstead’s design is artfully low-key distressed: Frankie’s gym is layered with filth, cars tend to be dusty ’70s clunkers, and the outside world consists of barren lots and lonely, Hopper-esque coffee shops. You’re almost shocked to see that Frankie’s best friend, Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), owns a working portable television.
Dupris is the visible key to Frankie’s self-loathing and attendant need for penance. Years back, Frankie managed Dupris, then a contender, and let him keep fighting despite his better judgment. Dupris went blind in one eye because of it; Frankie can’t forgive his lapse. A daughter estranged from Frankie for never-defined reasons provides deeper self-revulsion. In what works as a sort of sad refrain, we see Frankie repeatedly receiving and ceremoniously filing away missives marked return to sender as if they were holy affirmations of his lousiness.
It’s a credit to Swank’s rediscovered Method that when her plucky but desperate Maggie arrives at the gym she seems both relatively fresh enough to breathe some life into the film and emotionally weathered enough to fit right in with these grumpy old pugilists. At first, Frankie wants nothing to do with the woman, but her way with a speed ball and her single-minded determination—along with a more subtle sense of her needing a father figure, paired with his need to be a decent father figure—bring the two together.
Maggie turns out to be a first-round knockout specialist. As she wins increasingly bigger purses and gets an Eastern Bloc nemesis (Lucia Rijker), Baby threatens to become a run-down Rocky III. But rotten fate scuttles that, resulting in a dark last act that seems at first to be a riveting edit from another film entirely. Actually, it exposes the boxing narrative as the MacGuffin it is—the film is really a love story between Frankie and Dupris and Frankie and Maggie—bringing about the culmination of themes introduced early on. (Naming this misfortune and its consequences, however, would be an unforgivable spoiler.)
One of the pleasures of later-day Clint is waiting for the small cracks to show in his granite visage. Suffering an acute loss, he seems to weep exactly three tears. A bit of shared sadness with Maggie brings a smile that may not light up a room but will certainly surprise it. His growly burr voice has been worn down by the years to a near-indecipherable glottal rasp that accomplishes the neat trick of making you pay more attention. Eastwood at 74 seems to love making do with even less than usual, which is meant as a compliment to his measured minimalism. He’s even become capable of conveying delight: Frankie’s ongoing liturgical bitch-fests with a prickly, holier-than-thou priest (Brian O’Byrne) who accuses him of being a “pagan,” charm by how much fun Eastwood is obviously having acting them.
As a director, Eastwood has become such a skilled storyteller that he knows the value of perfunctoriness; his fight scenes are competently shot, but purposefully subservient to his love stories. Million Dollar Baby isn’t a great film—the shifts from genre pic to art-house ambitions are too abrupt, and Freeman’s narration too Shawshank-ian—but you’d have to be made of sterner stuff than Eastwood not to be deeply affected by it’s earned, wizened humanity.