A sentimental tale told unsentimentally, Clint Eastwood’s stunning Million Dollar Baby sounds like every second-rate boxing movie made during the ‘50s and ‘60s – a lower-class fighter with championship dreams is driven to greatness by a grizzled trainer with a heart of gold – but throws in the seemingly hokey twist that the pugilist is a 31-year-old woman. A conventional rags-to-riches story until its unexpected, calamitous third-act, Eastwood’s film follows Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) and her professional and personal relationship with an aging, expert cut-man named Frankie (Clint Eastwood) who manages fighters while operating a run-down fight gym called the Hit Pit with his long-time friend and former boxer Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Frankie is estranged from his own daughter and spends each day attending church as a means of paying penance for past mistakes, and thus when Maggie’s arrival affords him a shot at surrogate fatherhood and redemption, the surly old-timer grudgingly accepts.
Such a set-up is, on the surface, painfully hackneyed. Yet in the assured hands of Eastwood (who directs as well as stars), Million Dollar Baby exhibits a gentle unaffected beauty and austere humanism that’s anything but mawkish. The director forgoes Mystic River’s operatic tragedy for a clean, stripped-down classicism, his stirring, fight scenes a model of straightforward efficiency and his training montages – especially during shadow-drenched shots in which Maggie works on a body bog late at night in Frankie’s gym – examples of modest elegance. Working from a script that regularly threatens to teeter into self-parody (most notably with Scrap’s pseudo-Shakespearean narration), Eastwood underplays everything, choosing to focus less on his tale’s corny elements and more on the depressingly grimy atmosphere of the Hit Pit – the kind of ramshackle place where foolhardy ambition is doggedly, sometimes irrationally nurtured – and the enveloping air of failure and misery that hangs over Frankie and Maggie’s attempts to remake their lives.
As Frankie, Eastwood exudes an irritable gruffness born from long-unhealed wounds, and his humorously cranky rapport with Freeman’s soulful Scrap – a figure of forlorn wisdom and irrational optimism – is matched by his touchingly tender scenes with the phenomenal Swank. Transcending her role’s most grating flourishes (the deep South accent, the eager puppy dog enthusiasm, the incessant use of the word “boss”), Swank is a revelation, turning Maggie into a three-dimensional woman of feisty, irrepressible tenacity rather than the caricature Paul Haggis’ script (based on F.X. Toole’s short stories) frequently wants her to become. Eastwood’s quiet, morose, near-masterpiece ultimately reveals itself to be an austere rumination on the terribly high cost of salvation – how it is earned through blood and tears, and how it never provides the soothing, regenerative solace one craves. In the process, it winds up being 2004’s finest, most satisfying American film.