Our culture is afraid of age because it reminds us that death is coming. We move too fast to listen to the elderly. Million Dollar Baby was directed by and stars Clint Eastwood. He is 74; this is the 28th movie he has directed. It’s faithful to the compact short stories of F.X. Toole, who was also in his seventies when he finally got them published.
Here is a story about an old man who has driven his family away. He is found by a young woman who needs a father. She is a boxer; he becomes her trainer. Eventually his voice is the only one she hears. "I got nobody but you, Frankie," she says. "But you’ve got me," he says. It is enough.
Frankie Dunn, played by Eastwood, owns a gym in the wasteland near downtown L.A. He’s trained some great fighters there. He writes his daughter weekly, but the letters are returned unread. He has gone to mass every day for twenty years, but isn’t getting anywhere with his guilt.
Morgan Freeman is 66, here playing a man who is older, or more worn. Back in the day, he was Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris. Frankie managed him, and blames himself for what happened. They are bound together for life. Now, people call him Scrap because he’s cleaning up spit in Frankie’s gym. But Scrap stays invisible so he can watch. He sees what Frankie can’t, or won’t, and discovers Maggie.
Hilary Swank makes you love Maggie. She comes from the Ozarks, poverty, and ignorance. She knows two things about herself: She is trash, and she is tough. She waits tables, and takes home table scraps for dinner. All her money goes towards dues at Frankie’s gym. She believes that he can make her great, and she is determined that he and no other must train and manage her. Frankie tells her, "Tough ain’t enough."
Really, he doesn’t want to train a "girl," as he calls her, because when she gets hurt, it hurts him worse. Scrap narrates, "Boxing is an unnatural act. If you want to go forward, you gotta step back. But if you step back too far, you’re not fighting at all."
Boxing is the movie’s theater, but not its agenda. The fights are not an end, as in Rocky or Raging Bull , but a means; what’s outside the ring is more important. The narration tells us that a trainer must "strip a fighter to the bare wood". The movie is like that — nothing extraneous. The scenes are so intimate the characters are often suspended in darkness.
Eastwood has been heading in this direction since Unforgiven , and now has his great work. It’s about strength and character, and in the end, about peace. In its final third, it goes where others are afraid even to look. Like the best work of Robert Altman and Ousmane Sembene, who are also still directing in their seventh and eight decades, Eastwood’s movie contains such wisdom it is a spiritual experience
Only thirty people were there on opening night. Where was everybody? This movie quietly takes its place among the best. Nothing last year even came close.
You can see Million Dollar Baby at Kerasotes Showplace East. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.