There is a simple, brilliant scene in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby—anointed this week with multiple Oscar nominations—that captures so much about what makes the film simply brilliant. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a former boxing “cut man” running a broken-down Los Angeles gym, enters his office to find his longtime friend and gym custodian Scrap (Morgan Freeman) behind his desk with his feet propped up. “Can I give you some advice?” Scrap begins, only to be answered by Frankie with a question about the holes in Scrap’s socks. A long conversation commences about the condition of Scrap’s various pairs of hosiery—and at no point does the discussion ever return to the advice Scrap was about to proffer.
It’s rare to find that kind of meandering aside in a big studio film, let alone one that reveals as much about the characters involved. But Million Dollar Baby is a rare kind of big studio film. On a surface level, it’s little more than a collection of genres—a sports movie, a buddy picture, a relationship drama—that should offer the opportunity for a collection of genre tropes. And that’s what makes Eastwood’s achievement as a director so thrilling: He finds everything that’s purely satisfying about the genres in which he’s playing, while constantly throwing unexpected curve balls.
Freeman’s Scrap—himself an ex-boxer, blind in one eye—narrates this adaptation of stories from F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns, focusing on Frankie vand aspiring fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Maggie, a 30-something waitress from southwest Missouri, seems determined to make something of herself in the ring; Frankie, whose past is a collection of regrets, initially wants nothing to do with helping her out. But Maggie’s fierce drive begins to thaw Frankie’s resolve, until at last he begins to train her—and discovers that she may have more talent than anyone he’s ever trained.
Maggie’s isn’t the only talent on display here; a whole lot of it belongs to Eastwood. The veteran filmmaker got a lot of attention last year for the Oscar-nominated Mystic River, but that film’s operatic grandiosity actually felt way out of Eastwood’s comfort zone. Million Dollar Baby marks a return to the masterful restraint that elevated Eastwood-directed efforts like Unforgiven and the little-appreciated-because-of-its-sucky-source-material The Bridges of Madison County. He works masterfully in the shadows of Tom Stern’s cinematography, advancing his narrative visually with pinpoint efficiency. And even when working side-by-side with dynamic performances by Freeman and Swank, he delivers what may be the best on-screen work of his own long career as an actor in scenes swirling with guilt and self-doubt.
But what’s most impressive about the film is that it works within the confines of its genres with absolute confidence that when you nail the execution, it’s hard for an audience not to be moved. The expected winning-streak montage clips along with great sight gags, including a priceless take of Frankie reacting to one of Maggie’s five-second knockouts. Paul Haggis’ adapted screenplay works the relationship angle smoothly, establishing Frankie’s failed attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter and Maggie’s efforts to break from her family to find a sense of self-worth. When it seems like it’s going to be a standard boxing movie, it shifts gears to become a touching human drama. And when it seems like it’s going to drift into an unremarkable surrogate father/daughter connection, the narrative takes a third-act turn that only creates yet another genre for Million Dollar Baby to simultaneously exploit and subvert.
Million Dollar Baby has taken heat from some detractors for its more melodramatically one-dimensional characters: simple-minded would-be boxer Danger (Jay Baruchel); Maggie’s villainous cheap-shot artist rival “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker); Maggie’s callous white-trash mom (Margo Martindale). While it’s true that they may be the weak link in an otherwise flawless piece of work, they’re also evidence that Eastwood is aiming for throwback cinema that’s ultimately respectful to its predecessors. The chewy character roles are part of a tradition; Million Dollar Baby isn’t out to abandon melodrama so much as it’s out to perfect it. On the most basic emotional level, the story just plain works, even while its feints and dodges are keeping you on your toes.
Or paying unusual, fascinating attention to the sock holes exposing someone else’s toes.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY ***.5 Clint Eastwood Hilary Swank Morgan Freeman Rated PG-13