the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, May 05, 2006

Million Dollar Baby

For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

What is it about boxing movies that the public and the Academy Awards love so much? Cinema is chock-full of 'em: Rocky, Ali, On the Waterfront, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby and now Cinderella Man, just to name a few of the more recent and praise-worthy ones. But it would be a mistake to classify this film as a boxing movie. Million Dollar Baby simply uses boxing as a sometimes elegant, sometimes brutish metaphor for the hardships of life, the difficulties we must all overcome, the dreams we cannot let go of and the bittersweet endings to even the most lustrous stories.

"If there's magic in boxing," Morgan Freeman says early on in the film, "it's the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance. It's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you."

Million Dollar Baby is a movie about people who have nothing left but dreams.

The film tells the story of an aging fight trainer who runs a seedy L.A. gym populated by outcasts and oddballs. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is an emotionally broken and spiritually frustrated man. A boxing trainer and cut man, Frankie is a miracle-worker with a keen sense of the game, wiping the blood, resetting the broken bones and judging the endurance of the boxers in his charge. The only problem is that, as good as Frankie is at patching up others' wounds, his own are hemorrhaging out of control. He is alone in the world and feels cut off from, at best, a distracted God and, at worst, an unsympathetic one.

Each and every morning he faithfully attends mass (for which the priest comments, "the only person who comes to church that much is the kind who can't forgive himself for something"). What Frankie can't forgive himself for is never revealed, but we know it involves a lost daughter, the weekly letters for whom are returned to Frankie unopened and marked "return to sender." Frankie appears lean, world-weary and vulnerable as if one of his own boxers could crack him in half without even breaking a sweat. When the film uses vocabulary like "the most important thing is to protect yourself" and "everybody's got a particular number of fights in 'em. Nobody knows what that number is," we understand boxing is the last thing they are talking about. Every night Frankie kneels by his bedside, suffocating under a sea of regrets and begs for a redemptive healing that never comes. Or does it?

One day Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A hillbilly girl from backwoods "Missourah" who has worked to support herself from the age of 13, Maggie is desperate to escape her "trailer-trash" past by chasing her dream of being a fighter. She is determined to make something of herself. Boxing is the only thing she's good at. To take the punishment of boxing, you must first come from a background of suffering.

Frankie thinks girlfights are "the latest freakshow" and refuses to train her. But she is ferociously persistent and her bravery catches the one good eye of Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie's best friend and a former fighter who now looks after the gym. Freeman, is also the film's narrator, and brings the same sort of wise and empathetic Greek chorus omniscience that serves the resplendent Shawshank Redemption so well. He begins to show Maggie some basic moves.

Maggie is the ultimate diamond in the rough. She is smart and powerful, a brilliant athlete with the requisite raw materials already in place but lacking the knowledge of how to put them to proper use. That is where Frankie comes in. It's not these moves that eventually catch Frankie's eye, but the desperation. Desperation on the part of Maggie to make of herself something greater than she is and desperation on Frankie's part for redemption. Not only is he estranged from his daughter, but his last fighter betrayed and left him, compounding his feelings of failure as a father figure. He finally agrees to teach this "girlie" everything he knows.

Hilary Swank is astounding. Every note of her performance rings true. She transforms Maggie from a scrappy, ambitious, wounded girl into a ferocious, passionate, gleefully victorious fighter. Maggie dominates every fight she enters into. She does not simply excel. She obliterates her opponents in the first rounds.

But even as Maggie's public life gathers breathtaking speed, her private life begins to fall apart. A father whom she loved is dead. Her mother is ungrateful for her financial benevolence, degrades her, and mocks her profession. Her bother is in prison. And her single, teenaged sister is a brand new mother.

"I got nobody but you, Frankie," Maggie says at one point. She does not mean it in the romantic sense. This is far deeper than that. Though he doesn't say it, Frankie could easily have echoed her words. For a man who didn't want anything to do with a woman, Frankie finds himself in a place where he will do absolutely anything for her. Anything at all.

Million Dollar Baby is also a film about life and death. Eastwood, as he has advanced in years, seems to be focusing much more on human mortality. He is no stranger to dark stories entangled with complex moral questions. After a tragedy in the film's third act, the boxing matches, the brutal punches, the geysering blood, and the shattered bodies switch from the confines of the boxing arena to the arena of the human soul.

Rather than advocate one ethical decision over another, Million Dollar Baby plays its final notes more or less matter-of-factly. Indeed, the film leads us to believe that Frankie's final decision, far from granting him peace, will push him even further away from others, from himself, and from God. A devastating act of mercy for one character may very well cost the soul of another.

At a recent viewing with friends who objected to the content of the film's ending, I admitted that I sympathized and agreed with their concerns. Then I said I hoped I'd never find myself in a similar position because I might just do the same thing, wrong or not.

To read the full review, click here.


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