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The germ of corruption
Clint Eastwood’s million-dollar movie

First, the title. A million dollars is not a lot for a baby when actors get 10 times that for being in films that no one sees. It’s a Depression-era kind of title, and it resounds with phrases like "Million Dollar Movie," the name of a program of yore on WOR-TV in New York that gave an afterlife to classics of American cinema.

Among American directors working today, Clint Eastwood is one of the few who create worlds as definite, abstract, and self-contained as those limned (often on hundred-thousand-dollar budgets) by such million-dollar directors as Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan. From the beginning, Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby establishes such a world — one that appears to obey verisimilitude in every respect but that exists only in the imagination. "People love violence," whispers the voiceover narrator, ex-boxer Scrap (Morgan Freeman). The film, its setting (the Hit Pit Gym), and its hero, boxing trainer Frankie (Eastwood), all exist because they’ve been summoned by this love and by its complementary force, which Scrap calls "the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you."

The heroine, Maggie (Hilary Swank), is a dreamer of this dream. Although she is, as the film will detail, the product of a poor rural background and a grasping family, Maggie enters Million Dollar Baby out of nowhere: she just appears in the Hit Pit, fully formed, before she asks Frankie to remake her.

If the strongest motives driving the story of Million Dollar Baby were its up-front ones — Maggie’s will to master boxing; Frankie’s will, which proves less strong, to uphold his principle never to train women — Eastwood would still have enough to go on for a good film. But behind Frankie’s principle stands another that’s formulated in the mantric exchange he and Maggie repeat: "What is the rule?" "To protect myself at all times." Although the script explains Frankie’s obsession with this rule by mentioning a past boxing accident, the reference is embroidery. Maggie is a heroine easy to root for, but Million Dollar Baby is Frankie’s tragedy: the story of a man who against his better judgment and inclination gets involved with another human being and ends up paying for it. (As Joseph Conrad wrote: "I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.")

The wintry look Eastwood and cinematographer Thomas Stern create is ideal for unfolding the pain and the symmetry of this story. Darkness surrounds the characters, both as a sign of danger and as the background of non-existence from which they emerge. This is human life for Eastwood: half-lit, temporary safe zones chipped out of darkness. Most of Frankie’s own house is a lost continent, with light coming from unexpected angles; when he opens his closet to file another returned-as-undeliverable letter to his estranged daughter, light hits him from above. Henry Bumstead’s production design is eloquent. A shot of Frankie and Maggie at a dinner table overlooking an arena evokes a cheap majesty as stirring as anything in The Aviator. The diner where the pair stop on the way to visit her family is a sleek abstraction, both weatherbeaten and ageless, popping up, like Maggie and like the whole film, out of nowhere.

Million Dollar Baby isn’t a complete success. There are three, maybe four ways to shoot a boxing match, and despite his skill at pacing himself, Eastwood can’t avoid running through them before the script runs out of in-the-ring action. A boxing film may be forgiven its clichés, but this one is now and then too liberal with them. The character of Scrap is the most conventional aspect of the film, which (though Morgan Freeman is excellent) goes into a palpable slump in a sequence in which he’s left in charge of the gym. And triteness creeps into the ominous underlining of the formidable stature of one opponent Maggie must face.

Their match results in a late-film plot shift of the type that reviewers must keep secret and that in lesser directorial hands would have sent Million Dollar Baby into a tailspin. I’ll say only that Eastwood has never been more moving, as a director or as an actor, than he is in the last 30 minutes of this film.

Issue Date: January 7 - 13, 2005
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