Directed by Clint Eastwood. USA. 2004.

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Clint Eastwood has always had this style in terms of his acting and directing.  When ‘Dirty’ Harry Callaghan shoots the driver who interrupts his breakfast in the diner, he slowly works over with the carnage in the background, fire hydrant spewing water everywhere.  He holds his .44 Magnum by his side; he walks to the reckless driver and gives that memorable quote.  Nowadays the anti-hero would run over, shoot first and ask questions later.  But he always has been slow.  He was a late starter in the acting field, late into the American mainstream cinema via his work with Italian director, Sergio Leone.  In spite of this he was quick to pick up the directing bug and has not let go.  And it is this bug that has given him constant commercial success and critical acclaim.

Following the acclaim of Mystic River last year which lost out at the Academy Awards, due to the The Lord of the Rings delayed love-in, Eastwood picked up a novel by F. X. Toole entitled ‘Rope Burns’, this provides the basis for the main story of Million Dollar Baby.  

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood, his moody best), an ageing boxing trainer who after losing a good prospect to a rival manager takes on board a female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swan, in her second Oscar winning role).  Maggie like Eastwood who I alluded to earlier is a late starter to the boxing game, when we first meet her she is a few weeks from her 31st birthday.  Along with his gym’s cleaner, Scramps (Morgan Freeman, in a deserving Oscar win) they train Maggie to a world standard.

However, the film is about more than boxing. The film is about mortality, an acceptance of legacy, redemption and faith.  The funniest scenes (few and far between) are when Dunn confronts his priest questioning religion with silly observations, asking ‘Three gods?’ ‘No, there is one god!’  This dialogue ends with the priest calling Dunn a ‘f***ing pagan’.

In fact the boxing scenes are shot with a brashness and hurriedness on par with Maggie’s ability to knock out an opponent with one combination.  They are the height of fictionalised fantasy that when Dunn tells Maggie she only has 20 seconds, she does it in ten.  Raging Bull showed boxing as a cathartic release for Jake La Motta; here it is seen as a means for financial reward to improve her social status, the film never stops alluring to her trailer park childhood.

I cannot really mention the ending without ruining this review and anybody’s expectation of the film, especially in relation to what I mean by redemption and mortality.  Even though it is not the first time he has dealt with these themes - his recent work (Blood Work, True Crime, Space Cowboys and Mystic River) all deal with mortality and legacy on some level with endings that question them.  Again, Eastwood deals with an ageing character critiquing his own iconic status as this site of machismo and manhood; Eastwood’s performance is the chain of the whole film and is a sign of strength throughout as he gravely voices his lines.

The film is a triumph for Eastwood the director, though I feel it did not warrant the triumphs it received at the 2005 Academy Awards.  I went to see the film after those awards and dragged the person I went with to see the film so we could see it and compare it to the others.  And in comparison to Sideways, a film light in tone and more comedic in tone, the mise-en scene in Million Dollar Baby is full of shadows and darkness which instead of foreboding a shift of character or narrative, is indicative of the darkness which is impending for all the characters involved where they must face their own demons. 

Another criticism I have is that while I do not argue with Morgan Freeman’s Oscar win (more for his career than this one film), I feel his character which acts as narrator is more often used as a sounding board for Dunn and Maggie to talk to, so we can evoke sympathy for those two characters when the hard times hit.  And at the end, his presence is not of a friend but as a bystander watching an incident.

A slow burn of a film with fine performances and a soft hand of direction over proceedings which evoke feelings of watching something not with a message but just something to say.

Jamie Garwood
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