MILLION DOLLAR BABY is a perfect film. Director and co-star Clint Eastwood has taken a story about people who live on the margins of life and turned it into a universal story about redemption and respect, and getting them the only way that counts, by being self-administered.
The conceit is boxing, which Scrap (Morgan Freeman) describes as being all about respect, taking it for yourself, taking it away from your opponent. Its a zero sum game and an apt metaphor for Scraps life as the caretaker of the Hit Pit, a boxing gym as rundown and worn out as its owner, Frankie (Clint Eastwood), a trainer about to lose his prize boxer to a slick manager. Left only with Yeats, lemon meringue pie, and a love for tormenting his local priest with thorny theological questions after attending daily Mass, Frankie is on the ash heap of the boxing game, and of life, when hes confronted by Maggie (a stunningly sinewy Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old haunting his gym with a dream to box her way out of a present waiting tables and a future that seems destined to include getting fat in a rented trailer with a deep fryer and a bag of cookies. Aided by Scraps acerbic observations, Maggie eventually wears down Frankies resistance to be her trainer, despite grave doubts about taking a shot like this as his age, and after having one too many dream dashed. As should happen in all good films about redemption, everyones life changes.
Eastwood takes his time telling this tale, and the film is better for the wealth of detail revealed about the characters, how they interact and become indispensable to one another. From Frankie and Scrap bantering about socks that reveals another side of their relationship, to way Frankie tries to be nonchalant when he finds out that Maggie cant watch the tape of a fighter shes been paired with because she not only doesnt have a VCR, she doesnt have a television in her grubby little rented room. When he finally translates the phrase hes had embroidered on the flashy silk dressing gown she wears into the ring, there wont be a dry eye in the house, not because of the sentiment, theres that, too, but because of the profound, fundamental change it represents as having happened to Frankie.
With a few deft strokes, Eastwood creates a richly textured character in Frankie, one with a palpably unfortunate history who has adopted a self-mocking stoicism to shield himself from the surprises, uniformly bad, that life has thrown at him. To be fair, some of them hes thrown at himself using a combination of a blind eye and a sucker punch. Freeman takes a similarly less-is-more approach, though with a less self-defeating, even puckish air. Swank, who underwent boxing training for the role and did not use a body double for any of the boxing sequences, fairly glows with grit and a determination that is focused like a laser. This is not the wide-eyed innocence of big dreams that have to relation to reality, though, rather, its a determination that is burned deep into every particle of her being, one that has room for no other option, especially failure, to stop her.
This is not a film that glorifies boxing. Though the ring sequences are absorbing, the violence, the cracking of cartilage or the sickening thud of full body blows is brutal and brutally laid bare. Its a means to an end, underscoring the human drama that brought the participants to the ring and what they are willing to do to come out of that ring a winner. More, its about what people with everything stacked against them are willing to endure to be a winner in their own eyes. And why that is the only measuring stick that matters.