It tells the story of an old fighting coach and a country girl who thinks she can become a boxer. It is told by a former boxer who is the coach’s best friend. But it’s not a boxing movie. This is a film about a boxer. What’s more, all that, how deep, what emotional power it contains, I can’t suggest in this review, because I’m not going to spoil the experience of following this tale into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.
Eastwood plays the coach, Frankie, who runs a rundown gym in Los Angeles and reads poetry alongside him. Hilary Swank plays Maggie, from southwest Missouri, who has been a waitress since she was 13 and sees boxing as the only way she can escape the maids for the rest of her life.
Otherwise, he says, “I’d better go home and buy a used trailer and buy a fryer and some Oreos.” Morgan Freeman is Scrap, managed by Frankie in a title fight. Now he lives in a room at the gym and is Frankie’s partner in conversations that have been going on for decades. She’s trash.”
These three characters are seen with clarity and truth rarely seen in films. Eastwood, who carries no spare ounces in his slender body, also has no bearing in his films: Even as the film approaches the deep emotions of its final scene, he does not seek easy sentiments, but considers these men, flat-eyed, for they do. What should they do.
Some directors lose focus with age. Others get it, learning how to tell a story that contains everything it needs and absolutely nothing else. “Million Dollar Baby” is Eastwood’s 25th film as a director, and his best. Yes, “Mystic River” is a good film, but it finds the simplicity and directness of classic storytelling; it’s the kind of film where you sit very quietly in the theater and are drawn deeply into the life you care deeply about.
Morgan Freeman is the narrator, just as he is in “The Shawshank Redemption,” which is similar to this film in the way Freeman’s character portrays a man he becomes his lifelong study of. His voice is flat and factual: you never hear Scrap sway or twist his words. He just wanted to tell us what happened. He talks about how the girl got into the gym, how she didn’t want to leave, how Frankie finally agreed to train her, and what happened next. But Scrap isn’t just an observer; the film gives it a life of its own when the others are off-screen. It’s about these three people.
Hilary Swank is amazing as Maggie. Every record is correct. He reduced Maggie to a ferocious intensity. Consider the scene where he and Scrap sit at the lunch table, and Scrap tells how he lost sight in one eye, how Frankie blames himself for not giving up. This is an important scene for Freeman, but I want you to observe how Swank tells Maggie to do nothing but listen. No “reactions”, no small nods, no body language except perfect silence, deep concern, and an unwavering gaze.
There is another scene, at night driving in the car, after Frankie and Maggie visit Maggie’s family. The visit didn’t go well. Maggie’s mother is played by Margo Martindale as a stupid and selfish monster. “I have no one but you, Frankie,” said Maggie. This is true, but don’t make the mistake of thinking there is romance between them. It’s different, and deeper than that. He tells Frankie a story involving his father, whom he loves, and an old dog he loves too.
Look at the way cinematographer, Tom Stern, uses light in this scene. Instead of the usual “dashboard lights” that mysteriously seem to light up the entire front seat, watch how their faces slide in and out of the shadows, how sometimes we can’t see them at all, just hear them. Notice how the rhythm of this lighting matches the pitch and tempo of the words, as if the visuals caress the conversation.
It’s a dark picture overall: lots of shadows, lots of night scenes, characters that seem to recede into personal fate. do nothing for this woman, and will eventually do everything.