Million Dollar Baby
Editor's note: Many published reviews for this film—though not this one—reveal the surprising turn that the story takes in the third act, so, consumer beware. Knowing where the story is headed won't ruin the film for you, but it will significantly alter your experience.
Some people live lives in which their prayers are answered, their dreams fulfilled, their needs met, and their lives richly blessed. Others live lives of frustration, longing to hear God's voice, carrying excruciating burdens and struggling to maintain their belief that their Creator cares … or that he exists at all.
Million Dollar Baby looks like a boxing movie, but at its heart, it is the story of a spiritually frustrated man. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a boxing trainer and "cut man." When a fighter is wounded, Frankie steps into the ring, wipes up the blood, resets broken bones, and gauges how much more they can take.
He may be good at patching up others' wounds, but Frankie can't stop his own cuts from bleeding. At night, he kneels, weighed down by the burden of regrets, and asks God to heal his wounds. He attends daily mass, but instead of voicing his deepest conflict, he harasses an exasperated priest with dogmatic questions about the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. And while he spends his weeks counseling fighters about how to move their feet, his vocabulary becomes a kind of poetry describing his struggle to "protect himself" in fights he can't win on his own. Ultimately, when Frankie and his partner Scrap-Iron (Morgan Freeman) talk about boxing, they're talking about survival. "Everybody's got a particular number of fights in 'em," says Scrap. "Nobody knows what that number is."
There's no American filmmaker more concerned with mortality that Clint Eastwood. He's preoccupied with the consequences of violence and the forces that motivate men to fight. Here, he's chosen the perfect actor to play the troubled trainer—himself. Those famous Westerns about the "pale rider" who dealt out death and judgment have made Eastwood's visage one of Hollywood's most familiar. As he gets older, he digs deeper into questions of conscience, and his wizened, tightly drawn face seems to become more grim and skull-like, as if morphing into a symbol of his chosen subject.
Million Dollar Baby is not a Western, but it's just as primal and bleak as Unforgiven. This is Eastwood's most accomplished film, and he finds in Paul Haggis's screenplay (based on short stories by F.X. Toole) the richest, most complex character he's ever played. It's a familiar plotline—the grizzled old pro being convinced to take a gamble on a longshot. That longshot is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman from backwoods "Missourah" desperate to escape her "trailer-trash" past by chasing her dream of being a fighter. Frankie thinks girlfights are "the latest freakshow," but the last fighter he trained betrayed him, and that's only added to his feelings of failure as a father figure. There's no suspense in whether he'll take Maggie on; we know they're a perfect match. What we don't know is just how intimately we'll get to know them, and how hard a road they'll travel together.