Million Dollar Baby has a somewhat significant plot twist. Well, it actually has a couple of them. And neither comes with much foreshadowing. A little in Paul Haggis’s script, which director Eastwood visualizes appropriately, but they’re in the background. The film has its larger than life story to worry about–Clint Eastwood as a stogy old boxing trainer taking on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. Except she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman.
The film opens without cast title cards. Immediately, it’s very smooth. Eastwood has a gym, Morgan Freeman runs it for him. There are assorted goings-on at the gym involving the guys training there. It’s a great supporting cast at the gym–Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie–but the gym is initially just where Eastwood hangs out, not where he interacts. So instead Freeman is telling him the goings-on, which does fantastic setup for their relationship throughout the film. Only when Swank arrives does Eastwood get forced to participate and only after prodding from Freeman.
It’s great character development, funny, sweet, sincere. Eastwood’s very careful not to push too hard on any emotional buttons. He makes sure the actors’ emotions are authentic and doesn’t lay it on with the filmmaking. Tom Stern shoots Million Dollar Baby with crispness for the daytime scenes and sharpness with the nighttime. It works as to how the performances come across, how Joel Cox edits them. If it weren’t for how well Haggis’s script works, especially how it integrates Freeman’s narration, Million Dollar Baby might just be one of film’s finest melodramas. Well, if Eastwood–who does a lot in Million Dollar Baby as an actor and a director–wanted to make a melodrama.
He doesn’t though. Instead, he makes this strangely small, while still big, character study of three people and a location and shared experiences. Most of the film takes place in the gym. It’s the touchstone for the characters and the audience. Eastwood and Haggis never wax on about the hopes and dreams of the boxers at the gym–or even Swank’s. It’s not a meditation on the sport of boxing. It’s this devastating human condition piece, with characters revealing depths the entire length of the film, both through scripted dialogue and the actors’ performances. All of the acting is great; Swank is the best, but Eastwood’s the most surprising. You never once get the feeling Eastwood ever has an idea of what he’s going to say to Swank.
Freeman is great too, in the film’s most “of course” sort of way. He gets to be a bit of a mystery and has some fun with it. He narrates and he’s never untrustworthy or anything, he just isn’t telling his own story and it turns out–thanks to Freeman and Haggis–it adds to the film.
Eastwood also did the music, which is sort of unsurprising and also fantastic. The music is perfect. It’s such a strange film, this gentle American Dream rumination, celebration, and condemnation. It’s always sincere, never cynical, never defeatist, but never hopeful either. Eastwood’s filmmaking is focused character study. The music is restrained and minimal.
So many different things are going on in the film at any moment–whether it’s Swank’s Rocky story, Eastwood’s aging one, Freeman’s supporting mostly wry one, Eastwood and Haggis rely heavily on that Freeman narration. He never disappoints. Million Dollar Baby is kind of a love letter; all of a sudden I’m wondering how the script was written with the narration or if it was cut together later.
Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman don’t reinvent the melodrama; they just perfect the melodramatic character study. Ably assisted by Haggis, Stern, and Cox. Million Dollar Baby is phenomenal.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, and Albert S. Ruddy; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), and Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald).