Million Dollar Baby is a film that has such implicit faith in its characters that it allows them to inhabit an unvarnished reality almost completely free of Hollywood artifice. You never get the sense that you’ve seen these people in another movie, but rather that director Clint Eastwood has simply taken his camera out and pointed it at them, including one guy that looks a lot like the director.
In this day and age of directors who cut their teeth on MTV and commercials, Eastwood has a minimalist style that is more than simply refreshing. It’s almost miraculous when you discover that there are still filmmakers who actually remember that movies are a medium for telling stories about people rather than just a means for separating teenagers from their money on a Friday night.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Baby a love story, even if it isn’t about people falling in love, but rather what people will do and how far they’ll go in the name of their love for each other.
Baby starts out as the story of a thirty-year-old waitress named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). What she wants to do is box and the man she wants to train her is Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), but Frankie wants nothing to do with her. “I don’t train girls,” he growls. Besides, at thirty, Maggie is already a lot older than most of the girls she’ll be fighting.
Fortunately, Maggie finds an ally in Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, or just “Scrap” (Morgan Freeman) who enables her to use Frankie’s gym on the sly. Slowly, Frankie’s resolve wears down and he starts to train her. To his surprise, Maggie starts fighting and winning. Her boxing is neither polished nor pretty but she has a real knack for the sweet science.
There’s a sub-plot revolving around the theme of guilt, Frankie’s guilt over Scrap’s last fight and over his estranged relationship with his daughter. This guilt sends him to church every morning, where his impertinent questions drive the parish priest (Bryan O’Byrne) to distraction.
Ultimately, I think Million Dollar Baby is about family and how we can make a family out of the people around us. Maggie’s white-trash family spits on her attempt to help them after she becomes a success but then tries to exploit her later. In the end, Frankie is the only family she has and she the only one he has. And when this movie stops being about boxing, it’s his love for her that will force him to make a wrenching decision that will send him back to the priest with one last, very pertinent question.
Baby is a film that never has to shout. You can afford to whisper when what you have to say is worth hearing.
If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.