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Million Dollar Baby - Movie Review

[This review discusses a crucial plot detail. The review is best read after viewing the movie.]

'Million Dollar Baby' starts out as any good sports movie, with Maggie Fitzgerald, an aging waitress (31) wanting to become a boxing champion. She works hard, but realizes that without proper training all her effort will go down the drain. She approaches Frankie Dunn, a respected trainer, who refuses to take her saying that he doesn't train 'girls', as a policy, not out of disrespect for women. While she persists in wanting to be his trainee, Eddie Dupris, a superior boxer of yesteryears and a long time friend of Frankie observes her dedication and strong will.

What happens in the second act is pure sports movie build. Upon Eddie's recommendation and in an attempt to fill his protege-void, Frankie accepts her. We see a good rapport developing between Maggie and Frankie on and off the boxing ring. Frankie keeps saying "the first rule is to save yourself". The fight sequences are effective in displaying Maggie's mental strength more than her physical.

Eddie, in his boxing days, hurt his eye in a fight very badly and continued boxing when Frankie remained his cohort. He later lost that eye. Since then Frankie has been blaming himself for not pulling Eddie out of the ring. Eddie realizes that the tortured soul that Frankie is, he's not going to allow Maggie into top league because of his inner fears. Eddie even manages to arrange a deal for Maggie with a boxing agent, which turns out to be a futile effort. Within a span of 18 months Maggie rises from relative obscurity to the top of the heap and she is all set to take the champion for the title.

The third and final act of the movie is what makes it a class act. During the championship match, Maggie's moment of lapse in concentration results in a cruel blow that leaves her paralysed from neck down for the rest of her life. Maggie blames herself for not following the first rule in boxing. Frankie blames himself for causing her life irreparable damage.

What follows are sequences that deal with unanswerable questions about euthanasia. What is the dignified thing to do? To let our loved one die in peace or offer our loved one a hope of a better tomorrow and keep them going on. Frankie knows that more than pulling the plug, it's the emotional guilt that he may have to carry which will torture him forever. The conversations between Eddie and Frankie is an attempt at assuaging that guilt. I found the ending to be even-handed (maybe because it fits my idea of even-handedness) without any glorification of the characters.

Only three characters are at the centre of the movie. Hillary Swank plays Maggie and she perfectly fits the bill. She had to physically transform* herself for this Oscar winning role. Magnificent performance. Clint Eastwood (Frankie) and Morgan Freeman (Eddie) are like wines - they keep getting better and valuable with time. Such controlled performances that the viewers forget they were in a movie theatre witnessing actors. Hallmarks of great acting stamped all over Eastwood and Freeman.

Paul Haggis has written the screenplay based on short stories by F.X.Toole. Screenwriting of this kind has to be commended. There is no single scene that can be called 'standout' or 'turning point'. The movie unfolds at a deliberately slow pace. Yet at the end of the movie so much seems to have happened. And this is flawlessly handled by Eastwood, the director. Clint Eastwood is called an 'actor-director' in some corners. The term 'actor-director', somehow belittles the director's prowess. It means an actor, who acted in a few movies, understood how the movie system works and eventually began directing movies. Eastwood has directed twenty-five movies, a number higher than that of many established American directors and he stands as a proper 'director' in every sense of the word. His last two outings, 'Mystic River' and 'Million Dollar Baby' strongly support that statement. It would suffice to say that everyone behind the camera has given their best, instead of individually congratualting the technicians.

There is a good directorial moment: Frankie and Maggie on their way back from visiting her estranged family, stop at a gas station. Maggie, on an emotional level has clearly distanced herself from her family and feels like she's cut-off from a family-oriented world. Frankie gets out and waters the windshield and starts cleaning it, while Maggie stays inside the car. The camera, which focusses Maggie from outside the car through the windshield, captures the transformation from a stained Maggie to a clear Maggie looking at Frankie, symbolically accepting him as her father figure.

*I will write another post about actors who physically transform themselves to deliver believable performances.

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