Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood’s Masterpiece Oscar Card, Starring Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

How do you evaluate Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, an extremely well-directed and well-acted film, in which the first reel is formulaic a la Rocky, the second reel a good boxing melodrama a la indie Girl Fight, and the third reel an intimate drama that matches in its intensity and symbiotic relationships Ingmar Bergman’s best work.

The film blends deftly a routine boxing drama (which contains weak fighting sequences) with a great familial love story, set against the down-and-dirty world of a physically and psychologically demanding sport. Million Dollar Baby gets better, deeper, and more resonant as it goes along, so hopefully viewers will disregard the cliches in the film’s first part.

Adapted for the screen by Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby is based on a short story from the collection of F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns. Having spent years working as a cut man, the boxing team member whose job it is to patch up injuries, Toole captures vividly life in the ring in all its messiness and exhilaration.

A light feminist streak runs through Million Dollar Baby, a film that judiciously mixes generic conventions of the boxing drama, a femme-driven story about a poor girl, and a social-issue narrative that humanizes the controversial issue of euthanasia. Miraculously, the end result is a touching and engaging drama.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a trainer who’s managed some incredible fighters during a lifetime spent in the ring. The most important lesson he teaches his boxers is also the one rule that governs his life: Always protect yourself. In the wake of a painful estrangement from his daughter, Frankie is reluctant to let himself get close to anyone. His only friend is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who looks after Frankie’s gym.

Frankie has attended Mass almost every day for the past 23 years, seeking forgiveness that has eluded him. You know this type of character from numerous American movies: A seemingly tough man incapable of feelings, with a dormant sensitive and loving heart beneath the gruff exterior waiting to be unlocked by the right person.

That person would be Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young girl who out of the blue walks into his gym. Maggie is ambitious, knowing what she wants and willing to do what it takes to get it. Despite a life of constant struggle, Maggie possesses raw talent, unshakable focus, and tremendous will power. More than anything, she yearns for someone to believe in her. However, in their first encounter, Frankie tells Maggie bluntly that she’s too old and he doesn’t train girls. Maggie doesn’t take no as an answer. Unwilling to give up, she wears herself to the bone at the gym, encouraged only by Scrap.

Frankie is the owner of The Hit Pit, an old-school boxing gym in Los Angeles’ gritty downtown. He divides his time between the disparate activities of training fighters and attending Mass. Unable to forgive himself for becoming estranged from his daughter, he sends her a letter every week. But the letters always come back, unopened and marked Return to Sender.

Throughout his long career, Frankie has managed many talented boxers, some of whom have made it big. But it’s not Frankie who got them there. His need to protect them–and himself–eventually drives them away. Once his boxers learn all they can from him, they move on to more successful and aggressive managers. Frankie’s reluctance to put his boxers in title fights has caused many disappointments. He’s become ultra-conservative, unable to spot when they’re ready. Though he still trains fighters, he’s basically retired.

Maggie grew up dirt-poor in the Ozarks, but somehow managed to maintain her dream of becoming a pro fighter. Maggie finds in boxing purpose, pride, and happiness. Untrained, at 31, she’s considered too old to begin a career, but she refuses to give up. With no education and no support from her family, boxing is her only way out. Maggie sees in Frankie the man who can help her achieve her ambition.

Frankie, however, sees only disaster in training Maggie. Prejudiced towards the idea of female fighters, he treats her frivolously. He’s a traditionalist who thinks of boxing the old-fashioned way. In short, he’s a man in desperate need to overcome his biases and prejudice. The real reason for Frankie’s reticence is his need to protect himself emotionally from becoming involved in any relationship.

But Maggie refuses to take no for an answer, and instead spends frustrated hours at the gym every day–between double waitressing shifts. Scorned by the male boxers, the only encouragement she gets is from Scrap, an ex-fighter, who slyly throws Maggie small tips to improve her technique, while nudging Frankie in her direction. Scrap sees Maggie’s drive, passion, and focus–and the underdog in her as well. Little by little, with Scrap’s subtle help and her dogged perseverance, Maggie begins to improve.

The third relationship developed in the film is between Scrap and Frankie, whose comfortably cantankerous bond is the only close friendship either of them has. They’re two guys who have had lots of disappointment in their lives. Their relationship is built on loyalty and deep bond. In many ways, they’re like two old married people, enacting yet another variation of the odd couple. Scrap is attached to Frankie because he knows Frankie needs him. But Scrap has a painful history of his own: His boxing career was crushed when he was blinded in one eye during a vicious bout. Frankie was Scrap’s cut man that night, and he’s never forgiven himself for not finding a way to stop the fight.

Yet even in the face of Scrap’s pointed nagging and Maggie’s relentless enthusiasm, Frankie stays firm in his refusal. But on the night of her 32nd birthday, Frankie gets a glimpse of the pain and desperation that underscores Maggie’s fervor. It’s a new Maggie, one determined not to be anymore the plucky girl anymore in winning Frankie over. It’s in this moment that Frankie finally relents and takes Maggie on. This is a turning point for all of the characters, after which the film turns into a father/daughter love story, with Maggie as the daughter Frankie had lost, and Frankie as the father she had lost as a child.

Gradually, Frankie and Maggie get to know and respect each other. B turns exasperating and inspiring, their relationship is based on a shared common spirit that transcends pain and loss. They find in each other a sense of family lost long ago. What they don’t know is that soon they’ll both face a fierce battle calling for undeniable courage and involving violation of the law.

Eastwood seems to be playing a variant of John Wayne’s typical screen roles at old age. Indeed, there are several similarities between Million Dollar Baby and True Grit, Wayne’s 1969 Oscar-winning performance. That the young girl in True Grit is called Mattie, and the young protag in Million Maggie may be a coincidence. However, like Wayne, who in the last decade of his career served as a role model for children as surrogate or symbolic father, Eastwood plays a father figure to Maggie. The main difference is in tone: True Grit is a comic Western whereas Million Dollar Baby is a serious drama.

In True Grit, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) is a tough adolescent seeking to avenge her father’s murder. Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is at first amused by her proposition to hire him, but he gets more interested when she mentions money. “I’m giving you my children’s rates,” he says, when Mattie bargains with him over the price–though he admires her guts for doing it. Million Dollar Baby, like True Grit, is a triangle, with the latter revolving around Wayne, Teaxs Ranger Glen Cambell, and Kim Darby. When the two men leave on their mission, Mattie insists on joining them.

Her stubborn determination prompts Wayne to observe, “My God, she reminds me of me!” Insistent, Mattie swims across the river on a horseback, which gains her Wayne’s respect. Million Dollar Baby, like True Grit, makes clear that Wayne/Eastwood expect the young woman to demonstrate true grit in pursuing her goal against all odds.

Eastwood’s no-nonsense directing style and keen understanding of performance helps here. Million Dollar Baby is a film enriched by the multi-layered performances, and by the backdrop against which the characters struggle to realize their desires and confront their fears. Eastwood has envisioned an interesting visual look: Though Million Dollar Baby is set at present, the film feel timeless as a saga of the 1960s or 1970s. The drawback to Eastwood’s minimalist-classicist style is a trace of dullness and predictability, particularly in the first reel in which all the expectations are neatly fulfilled.

Boxing plays an important role, but it’s not a picture about boxing; it’s about relationships, and the feelings that go unspoken and remain implicit. Eastwood treats the film as a love story about a person who’s distressed about his non-existent relationship with his daughter, and who then finds a surrogate daughter in the shape of Maggie.

Million Dollar Baby is a spiritual, even religious, movie about the search for redemption of an old Irish Catholic, who’s become disillusioned with the church and the lack of significant family relationship. Through his relationship with Maggie, Frankie redeems himself and experiences a moral and emotional rebirth at the most tragic circumstances.

The rather ambiguous denouement is thought-provoking, encouraging the audience to take a stance toward euthanasia and come up with their own interpretation about the future of the surviving characters.