The gift of a great film is its ability to transform the audience’s experience from observer to participant. Clint Eastwood’s bittersweet “Million Dollar Baby” does just that.
If you’re thinking of skipping this film because of its subject matter, you will do both yourself and the film a great disservice. This is not a film about boxing — boxing is simply the conduit through which the characters express themselves. The brutality and beauty of the sport takes a back seat to its true center, the brutality and beauty in life.
Hilary Swank is Maggie Fitzgerald, a young working class woman whose unwavering dream is to become a championship boxer. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a gym owner and trainer who initially dismisses her because of his distaste for women’s boxing, what he calls a “freak show.” Frankie’s confidante, Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), the gym’s sometimes maintenance man, befriends Maggie and gives her pointers. Eventually Frankie takes her on as a student, where her natural talent quickly moves her up through the rankings. In Maggie, Frank finds a surrogate for his own estranged daughter, just as she finds a father figure. These are lonely people, but they somehow find in each other solace, faith and a sense of family.
Eastwood’s instincts as a director are razor sharp here, and he guides these characters through their journey together with great tenderness and respect — his own performance as Frankie is astonishing, a coarse man who reads Yeats. His performance is matched by Swank, who is back in the form seen from her Oscar winning role in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
The beauty of the film is with its poetic subtleties. Cinematographer Tom Stern accentuates these moments with his use of light and shadow, almost as though he is creating a space for the viewer to inhabit within the film. That is precisely what happens as the film builds to its deeply affecting and haunting conclusion. Its power remains long after leaving the theater.