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Million Dollar Baby
5-7 minutes

When Clint Eastwood – among the most significant and impressive directors in
contemporary American cinema – made, at the age of 62, his masterpiece Unforgiven
in 1992, it already felt like a final, summing-up, testament work. And that
testament was a little hard on the career of an artist-entertainer who had no
intention of giving up in a hurry. Although Eastwood has gone on to make some
wonderful films (including A Perfect World [1993] and Space Cowboys [2000]) in
between some alarmingly clunky ones (such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and
Evil, 1997), they have all felt like postscripts, twilight works that refer to and
vary what was perfected in Unforgiven.

Million Dollar Baby, too, goes back over the familiar elements of Eastwood’s
dramas. But, miraculously, this time he has managed to produce not only another
testament, but also another masterpiece. It is a superbly crafted film that brings
together everything Eastwood is best at as a director and storyteller, while
minimising the nagging problem areas of his work.

Million Dollar Baby has been described everywhere as a boxing film, but the label
is misleading and even unhelpful. Yes, it is true that one can learn much more from
Eastwood’s movie about the technicalities of this strange, bloody sport – the
footwork, the punching styles, the physical injuries – than from the abstract,
stylised, decentred narrative of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). But Eastwood
is not much interested in exploring or questioning the issue of violence, and even
less in the typical boxing-film theme of masculine identity.

This film observes the world of boxing dispassionately, taking no moral stance. It
is much closer to the melancholic portrait painted by John Huston in his classic
Fat City (1972) than to the punch-drunk hungry heroes and social allegories served
up by John Garfield films in the 1940s, or by Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky
series.

The modest gym run by Frankie (Eastwood) collects losers of various kinds. And one
woman, not so young, who yearns for a chance in the ring: Maggie (Hilary Swank).
Frankie’s laconic right hand man, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who is also
the film’s wise and hard-boiled narrator, expresses well the hope of Maggie and all
who hang around this gym: they are all aiming for dignity, for a chance to make
something of themselves in the eyes of the world. Most will not make it, but Maggie
indeed has the potential to become the ‘million dollar baby’.

Objectors to this film have rankled at its unbridled, possibly all-American code of
individualism, and its distaste for explanations based on the supposed ‘victim
mentality’ of social determinism – a distaste topped only by the ferocity with
which Eastwood and gifted screenwriter Paul Haggis depict Maggie’s grasping,
unlovely family members. These aspects certainly count as minor flaws in an
otherwise perfect work.

But Eastwood’s head and heart are fundamentally elsewhere. He is attracted to the
vexing ambiguities of behaviour, and especially to the complexities of emotional
bonding – what it means to commit yourself to someone, how you choose that person,
and what role you cast them in (friend, lover, mentor, student, parent, child).
Although Eastwood is not beyond leaning on the sentimentality and pathos he has
(expertly) milked before in films like Honkytonk Man (1982), here he goes deeper
into the Frankie-Maggie bond than his stories usually allow.

Jacques Rivette once remarked that every good film should be seen twice: the first
time for surprise, the second time for ravishment. That is an apt motto for Million
Dollar Baby, about which it is preferable to know almost nothing before you see it
for the first time. And this is not merely a matter of a certain, crucial
development that changes and deepens the course of the plot.

Eastwood – who, fittingly, became a star because of immortal, quotable lines like
‘make my day’ and ‘read my lips’ – builds, again and again, to a clincher utterance
by one of his characters, something that suddenly brings to the surface and
encapsulates, poignantly or ironically, everything brewing in the netherworld of
this movie. Such moments, so powerful and soulful, are the proof of Eastwood’s
greatness as a filmmaker.

Not one of these lines should be spoilt for any prospective viewer of Million
Dollar Baby. Suffice it to say that, by the time you hear Scrap reflect on the
‘kind of man’ Frankie is, you will have reached the heart of the Great Eastwood
Mystery – the way in which his films can simultaneously celebrate triumph and plumb
an abyss of loss.

MORE Eastwood: Absolute Power, The Bridges of Madison County, Blood Work, Pale
Rider, Mystic River

© Adrian Martin February 2005

filmcritic.com.au
Pale Rider
2-3 minutes

Underrated and wrongly dismissed on its release as a clone of the much-loved Shane
(1953), this Western, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, is masterful and
fascinating.

Indeed, since beginning his career as a director in the early '70s, Eastwood has
quietly but surely become one of America's most consistently inventive filmmakers,
as witty and romantic as he is tough and visceral.

The situation here is a classic Western set-up: a small farming community is


increasingly menaced by the hired henchmen of a greedy, capitalist baron. They pray
for a miracle and receive it in the form of Eastwood.

The star is, in the good-guy position, a laconic, no-nonsense protector. But, as in
some of Eastwood's more challenging works (The Beguiled [1971], High Plains Drifter
[1973]), this saviour figure quickly becomes a source of enigma and ambiguity. Is
he an angel or the Devil? Has he come to cement this community or subtly drive it
apart?

Despite its rousing action scenes, Pale Rider is deliberately understated, always
playing on what is unsaid but palpably implied in any situation – whether violent
hatred, burning desire, or both.

Eastwood has gathered an idiosyncratic and memorable ensemble of character actors


(Carrie Snodgrass, Michael Moriarty, Christopher Penn) to complement his muted,
autumnal, spacious directorial style.

MORE Eastwood: A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Absolute Power, Unforgiven,
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Space
Cowboys, Blood Work, Mystic River
© Adrian Martin September 1990

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