Million Dollar Baby

A film about boxing is not really about it at all.

A film about boxing is not really about it at all. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is more about a father Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) dealing with an estranged daughter and about the same crusty trainer facing an aggressive young female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). The intersection of Frankie's personal and professional lives is deftly drawn in the parallel plots.

Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman) narrates, as Freeman does so well in Shawshank Redemption, about Frankie's boxing gym, where Freeman, a former boxer and best friend of Frankie, works and lives. Freeman has the right melancholic but authoritarian voice, the kind Michael Caine uses so well in Cider House Rules that relays acceptance of fate with a generous supply of humanity. Frankie quietly endures boxers leaving him for a better chance, old age, and the importuning of young boxers who want a chance at success. Along with Maggie comes a trailer-park family that tests Frankie's essentially peaceful nature, one nurtured by reading Gaelic.

Director Eastwood's style is minimalist, essentially a three-person drama set in spare locales like the clean and uncluttered gymnasium. Although not black and white, the color film plays down color to give it a '40's film noir feeling. Cinematographer Tom Stern (chief lighting technician for Road to Perdition) uses dark and light shadows like a 16th century portrait painter. At times I thought I was watching Hopper's diner come alive with these marginal but never dull characters.

While the dialogue is rarely poetic, it is muscular in its spareness, just enough to get the point across. With weathered faces like Eastwood's and taut beauty like Swank's, not much more is needed but a close-up camera and editing to reduce the fat to that muscle. When Maggie from southwest Missouri describes the life she left, the language is as poetic and moving as a poet laureate's: "I might as well go back home and buy a used trailer and get a deep fryer and some Oreos."

I was drawn into the drama far more than any other film of 2004, because the story was common but powerful and the Oscar-worthy performers reached the right notes, and not a note more. The best picture of '04 by a knockout.