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Shadow Boxing: Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”

Shadow Boxing: Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby"

Shadow Boxing: Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”

by Nick Pinkerton, with responses from Andrew Tracy and Michael Koresky

Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank in Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]

Somehow I’m always surprised by a new Clint Eastwood movie showing up in theaters, though it can’t be for lack of fanfare, as there’s an ever-increasing round of critical apoplexy surrounding each release from our beloved “old pro.” But all this noise stands in contrast to the way these films sidle onto screens; it’s that same natural and unaffected quality that shows in Eastwood’s approach to his subjects. Compare Todd Solondz‘s “Happiness,” which smugly crowed the film’s (gasp!) show of compassion for a pedophile, to the quiet, firm empathy that “Mystic River” showed towards Tim Robbins‘ sexually-conflicted character, or weigh the overwrought feminist bluff of “Girlfight” against the frankly-presented femme-fighters of “Million Dollar Baby.” Just change the gender of protagonist Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and much in this film fits comfortably inside the template of a 1940s “hungry young pugilist” drama or John L. Sullivan‘s autobiography. When veteran fight manager and “cut man” Frank Dunn (Eastwood) tells Fitzgerald “I don’t train girls,” it’s just a statement of established fact, not a sexist sneer.

“Million Dollar Baby,” following Dunn’s eventual mentoring of trailer-bred fighter Fitzgerald, is cheap-looking in a good way, tight like one of those old genre quickies — a trip to England is established with a stock helicopter shot of the Thames and a prominently placed Union Jack, and all of the movie’s visuals are as Spartan as the bedrooms of old men who live alone. Fitzgerald’s story is narrated by Morgan Freeman‘s gym manager “Scrap,” whose voiceover takes on the aspect of a refrain, reiterating learned-by-heart speed-bag philosophy until it develops into a mantra, a way of life. Herein lies the core of the film; the emotional truths are resurrected in tired clichés like that found on the inspirational poster in Frank’s Hit Pit: “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t do.”

It’s taken as point of fact by Eastwood’s pragmatic admirers that anything the old man makes will be hobbled by at least a handful of flat-out bad, shopworn scenes, and “Million Dollar Baby” is no exception; the revelation of the meaning behind Swank’s Gaelic ring moniker, Mo Cusha, is a two-bit writer’s feint, easily as lame as Tom Hanks‘ soggy “I’m an English teacher” bombshell in “Saving Private Ryan.” But alongside this dreck, one finds some of the toughest material to come through a Hollywood studio in recent memory — the movie lands some jarring sucker-punches — and the trio of central performances are faultless. Eastwood and Freeman find the deep-driven groove of an ancient acquaintance together, and it’s fun to watch the deadpan put-downs with which Freeman, here an imperious, laid-back bullfrog with one milky eye, laces Clint.

It’s understandably become a critical crutch to talk about the role that age plays in Eastwood’s filmography, but, beyond reflecting increasingly-geriatric Eastwood’s attraction to increasingly-geriatric protagonists, I think there’s something in this codgerliness which makes Eastwood’s movies so fascinating, resonant, and sometimes forgivable. I used to tease a friend’s tendency to listen only to bands with members whose median ages were no less than 40, but, a few months back, when I saw the Philadelphia band Notekillers playing for two dozen people in the Brooklyn hinterlands, I started to understand his preference. Here was an ornery, noisy trio who, about a quarter of a century ago, had faded into the annals of rock marginalia until the attention of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore provided them a fresh flash of underground attention. And as they plowed through their set list, mercilessly chasing down songs into smothering concentric coils, I was struck with an uncanny feeling — difficult to articulate now, if only because I happened to be cross-eyed drunk at the time — that getting laid or getting rich or garnering a mention in some taste-making online rock rag wasn’t any part of these guys’ program. They were making sounds for the sake of sound.

Eastwood’s at the opposite end of the fame spectrum; no one could regard him as the victim of under-exposure, but I think the liberation of resigned obscurity and of living legend status aren’t too far removed. In either case, there’s nothing to prove. Eastwood exudes the confidence — or is it just easy indifference? — of age; he’s hiked up his pants, grandpa-style, to sternum level, a gesture that says nothing if not “I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me,” and this attitude resonates in his film. That said, it’s a real loss for anyone to dismiss “Million Dollar Baby” as some creaky, horse-drawn thing vamping for Oscars; this is a work that’s effacing enough to deliver its “big moment” speeches in the near-dark or over a shoulder, and gutsy enough for it’s star/director to prod himself out of his comfort zone into a display of unprecedented emotional exposure. The big themes woven into the film’s world of operatic lowlife, those of decline, dignity, delusion, God, and respect, are themselves nothing new, but it’s the doggedness with which they’re grappled that compels. Every frame of “Million Dollar Baby” — a movie of insoluble dilemmas, questions that the work has good sense enough not to suppose solutions to — is suffused with an attitude of genuine curiosity. It’s the tough, honest work of someone looking for answers.

[Nick Pinkerton is a scholar, gentleman, and “Reverse Shot” staff writer living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.]

Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank in Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Take 2
by Andrew Tracy

It’s an oddity of our cloistered little reviewers’ world that a film like “Million Dollar Baby” needs to become a point of contention, a dividing line for dueling critical philosophies. As we become more irrelevant, we become ever more combative. When Canada’s National Newspaper has taken to annotating the new weekly releases with their “predicted 3-week gross,” treating Eastwood’s latest as cinematic savior or damnation seems not just pointless but uncannily similar to the former practice. The feverish atmosphere of snarling polemic we create around these films in the rush of year-end 10-best lists only helps to speed them out of sight the faster and make room for next year’s model. If we really want to fight the accelerated pace of the box office, the first thing we have to do is stop trying to keep up with it.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Eastwood’s beguilingly simple character piece is setting these tendencies in relief. After all, Eastwood is a creature of the box office who has been anointed Artist without ever truly changing — just deepening. His virtues have remained as consistent as his flaws, and “Million Dollar Baby” features both, with the balance thankfully weighted towards the former. That artistic steadiness is intrinsically related to Eastwood’s intimate knowledge of the industry. It’s no stretch to say that Eastwood’s matter-of-fact commercial sense has contributed to the economy and refined measure of his filmmaking; his artistry has struck a balance with the practicalities of the business.

Then that is what could make “Million Dollar Baby” feel so strangely, beautifully “out of time”: its maker’s knowledge of both worlds has allowed him to create his own. Whatever his strengths and limitations, Eastwood has consistently set his own pace, one of reflection, care, and depth. If “Million Dollar Baby” has any immediate importance apart from its casual grace and beautifully modulated emotion — virtues at any time — it’s in reminding us that true consideration requires space and calm, not the pugilistic fervor of the movie meat market.

[Andrew Tracy is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Reverse Shot, and his work has also appeared in Cinema Scope, POV, and Film Comment.]

Hillary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Take 3
by Michael Koresky

I first truly realized it while watching “Absolute Power,” that oddly effective political potboiler from 1997 that Clint Eastwood adapted from that bestselling hooey by David Baldacci: as a director, Eastwood manages to make immediate and honorable something that perhaps seemed terse and worn-out on the page. What was once easily digestible beach-reading becomes something akin to actual literature — sturdy and unadorned, and Robert James Waller (“Bridges of Madison County”), Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), and, now, F.X. Toole, get to vicariously live their Hemingway aspirations onscreen. Eastwood’s reclamation of popular contemporary fiction cannot be overstated; less unwieldy mutation than miraculous nudge forward in the right direction, the consideration with which Eastwood gives his adaptations could provide Charlie Kaufman with the requisite crash course: one hour locked in a bare, beige room with Clint, and he could maybe finally learn how to make that movie of “The Orchid Thief” dramatically viable without having to insert himself haphazardly into the text.

“Million Dollar Baby”‘s conceit (revelatory, if only for Hollywood, so insistent on tidiness and “redemption”) requires audience participation: Good deeds often go unrewarded, and life’s pain oftentimes cannot subside, but as viewers, our empathy, compassion, and love can be the only cleansing agent. It’s an incredibly empowering thought for an overwhelmingly, impressively sad film, and a perfect expression of the humanism that simply trudges its way into whatever text Eastwood’s decided to amend, naturally, and without fanfare. Like “Madison County,” his dime-store romance turned heart-stopping guttural mourn, “Million Dollar Baby” snatches up a big handful of hoary genre platitudes and imbues them with all the weight of the world.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of “Reverse Shot,” as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of “Film Comment.”]

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