Over the past few years, I’ve said a few times that Clint Eastwood is in the Autumnal stage of his career — the period wherein his movies have started coming to grips with old age, loss, death. Million Dollar Baby, which a lot of people are convinced is his masterpiece, may be Eastwood’s most Autumnal work yet: gritty, dark, melancholy, on speaking terms with failure and regret. By now, Eastwood and his longstanding tight unit of collaborators are incapable of making a slipshod movie; this one is, as usual with Clint, measured and solid and expertly acted. But it left me cold nonetheless. Eastwood is attempting something major here, but the script isn’t complex enough to support it, and nobody here really does anything he or she hasn’t done before.
Consider the heroine, Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor but plucky Southern gal played by Hilary Swank at her pluckiest. Maggie, at 31, wants to be a boxer. She may not have the moves yet, but she has Heart, and, as a century of sports movies will tell you, Heart is all you need. Maggie comes from bona fide White Trash, characterized here with possibly the most blatant set of caricatures in any Eastwood-directed film since Sudden Impact. But Maggie herself is Good and Pure, with scarcely a flicker of ambition or greed clouding her path. She just wants to Be Someone. She just wants to Fight.
Eastwood, as creaky “cut man” and gym owner Frankie Dunn, just wants to Be Left Alone. Yes, Clint is the Irascible Old Coot Who Won’t Give Our Heroine a Chance. But Maggie keeps coming to the gym, and before long, Frankie’s old friend and gym janitor Scrap (Morgan Freeman) starts sneaking her lessons after hours. Oh, what a challenging role this is for Morgan Freeman, who gets to Be Wise and Keep His Own Counsel and Narrate the Movie. Scrap is an old softy, and, it turns out, so is Frankie, who eventually consents to train Maggie.
There is a Training Montage. There are Decisive Boxing Matches, most of which Maggie wins in the first round. There is Foreshadowing: Frankie has a thing about not taking risks with his fighters, because of Scrap’s own Sad Backstory involving the loss of sight in his right eye. There is even a Villain, in the person of dirty-fighting former prostitute Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), this movie’s Mr. T to Maggie’s Rocky. Billie has a nasty habit of sucker-punching her opponents even after they’ve fallen to the canvas. We know, unless this is our first movie, that Maggie and Billie are due for a clash of the titans.
What we may not foresee is the Plot Twist, of which much has been made. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. It certainly kicks Million Dollar Baby off its expected track, turning the movie into a lugubrious meditation on Life and the Meaning of Same. A priest is consulted. The movie’s already dark lighting scheme goes all the way into shadow. Eastwood holds melodrama at arm’s length with his usual leathery reserve, but it lurks in the movie’s corners. Maggie’s family is brought on for more jeering, accompanied by a Sleazy Lawyer. Eastwood may be trying for archetypes here, the way he did in Unforgiven, but in that movie (which I consider his true masterpiece) he dug around inside the archetypes, casting off the mythological cobwebs that had gathered around them. This movie replaces that with lazy screenwriting (based on stories by F.X. Toole, which I haven’t read); it’s as if scripter Paul Haggis took a hard left turn towards catastrophe because he didn’t know any other way to avoid a clichéd finale, but he just trades one cliché for another.
Million Dollar Baby is certainly a somber enough piece of work to explain all the accolades and awards. But, to paraphrase Frankie, somber ain’t enough. This is Eastwood’s weakest work in years, perhaps because it yokes itself to a hot-button theme instead of a story that resonates. I also think the movie might’ve been more touching with a cast of unknowns: The reason we were able to buy Sylvester Stallone as a broken-down, below-poverty-level contender in the first Rocky is that, at the time, that wasn’t far from his reality. Stallone also managed to write a denouement (if we forget about the sequels up until Rocky Balboa) in which failure and realism co-existed with triumph and a dream fulfilled. Here, we have rich Hollywood actors shuffling around in the gloom of expensively grimy sets, pretending they live there, and at the end, the characters have to pretend to make a hard choice, though, when you think about it later, the script leaves them no other choice.