Clint Eastwood has acted in movies for fifty years and directed for over thirty. He gets better all the time. Some of that is the result of skills honed, the years of practicing his art. Some of it is about the wisdom and insight that come with age and experience. Eastwood incorporates that perceptiveness, through thoughtful and rich characterizations, into clean, powerful storytelling, the single most important element of good films. His movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end; they have evolved into spare, compelling narratives, honed down to the essentials–no frills to get in the way of what is important. (The one wrong note in Million Dollar Baby is a close up of what happens to a boxing wound–handled like a CSI clinical shot. It’s totally unnecessary and distracting here.)
Million Dollar Baby is the story of a woman boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), from a trailer-trash background, without an advantage in the world except her focused determination to better herself. Boxing is the sport of mythical opportunity for those who have little to lose and seek a route to both money and recognition. "Boxing is about respect," a character says, "Get it for yourself, take it from the other guy." The line foreshadows the give and take to come.
Maggie works out at a seedy old gym owned by Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and, with the help of Dunn’s friend, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), finally overcomes Dunn’s strong resistance and gets him to agree to train her.
But Eastwood isn’t interested in rabble-rousing Rocky stories with inspirational music; he’s too smart and too experienced and his view of the world is more complex and a lot darker than that. Dunn has a daughter somewhere, a daughter he hasn’t seen in years who rejects his frequent letters, "return to sender." He goes to Mass daily and gets into feisty dialogue with his priest, unable to find peace in the ritual of the church. Dunn is carrying guilt for something that happened a long time ago, but Eastwood doesn’t specify just what–he’s interested in Dunn’s state of mind now and he doesn’t need to elaborate further to accomplish his characterization. Where some directors would have padded the film with unnecessary backstory, Eastwood makes his point and keeps his story pared to its essentials.
In his relationships with his boxers, Dunn’s motto has been "protect yourself." But self-protection in the ring reflects on a more profound kind of self-protection; Dunn has emotionally withdrawn from all relationships to protect himself from further hurt. The connection, then, between Maggie and Dunn–two loners, separated from family, light on friends–is a marvel to see, as defenses slowly recede, as trust and caring grow. There is redemption in caring for others, the story ultimately suggests, even when that caring requires the violation of precepts demanded of the devout.
The film is in a palette of grays and blues with the low lighting, shadowy look that Eastwood used in Mystic River. He has an uncanny and unerring ability to place his camera in just the right place to bring out the drama of each moment and the meanings embedded in his story. With naturalistic and carefully understated performances by the three principals, Million Dollar Baby delivers an emotional punch to match those of the pugilists punishing each other in the ring. And who else but Eastwood could seamlessly incorporate Yeats into a boxing film?