The New York Times recently ranked Million Dollar Baby as the third best movie of the new millennium (so far). And with it being available on Netflix, I felt it was worthwhile to dedicate my afternoon to watching it and see if the Times’ assessment held up.
Well, it does. Talk about a tour-de-force barrage of emotions and punches. It takes the boxing and sports movie and elevates it to an entirely new level. I had only seen bits and pieces of it and knew how it tragically ended, but I never could prepare myself for the gut-punch that ending delivers after sitting ringside with Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank to that point.
For the most part, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman play themselves: Eastwood a curmudgeony boxing maestro angry at the world, and Freeman an old timer who exerts decades of life and fighting wisdom every time be blinks. They seamlessly mold to their roles, like true Oscar winners stepping back into a project that was scientifically-tailored to each of their strengths.
But the real breakthrough is Hillary Swank, who plays the damaged but determined prize fighter. Her story is familiar: girl from bad upbringing challenges herself to achieve greatness. Usually the poor eco omic situation for these types of characters is established by them in a dreary, desolate apartment or scenes of the character combing through a pile of overdue bills. But Swank’s poorness is established early on by her desperately stealing a customer’s leftover steak and wrapping it in tin foil to eat later. She lies and says its for her dog, but we watch her chow down on it like a vulture that’s been waiting for a new corpse to feast on. Its devastating and heartbreaking, and it immediately fastens us to Swank through the remainder of the film.
As she trains with Eastwood, were given an unglamorous look at building a fighter. No raw eggs, no chasing chickens, just hours and houes of hard work. She becomes a champion before our eyes and we’re rooting for her from our armchairs in each of of her bouts. Her kindness is endearing and her smile is contagious. We want her desperately to succeed and get everything she’s ever wanted in this life and the next, and we hate every person or obstacle that stands in the way of her achieving that.
Much of this is owed to Swank, but Eastwood cannot be forgotten either. His direction is masterful, each of his frames and positioning a bleak but beautiful painting. He knows the best way to position a camera to evoke the strongest feeling from us. He has a sense of human nature and toughness that stems from his over 70 years on the earth at that time. The man knows how to make a movie.
Million Dollar Baby isn’t quite a sports movie or a tragedy as much as a chronicle of redemption, victory, heartbreak and reclamation. Boxing is a big part of it too, but man, this is a movie that quite literally is an experience and stays long with you. A living, moving, breathing work of art if there ever was one.