Hit Me Like You Mean It
by Eric Hynes

Million Dollar Baby
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.

There are many, many films out there, and despite our usually justifiable complaints about monotonous mediocrity and vapidity, most films have something to offer, something to respect if not love, something for a craftsman or performer or producer to be proud of, something to fixate on and enjoy, even if, in relief, it’s at the expense of the film as a whole. That’s one way of putting it. Another way: enjoying/coping with all of this product necessitates a drop in our standards. We wind up expressing enthusiasm for films that exceed our low expectations and offer highest praise for films that succeed, spectacularly and surprisingly, in spite of their flaws. Whereas films that run well, sturdy and smooth from first to last, working quietly within their own dimensions, are harder for us to praise. There’s not that ambitious imbalance of filmmaking that’s flawed but promising for us to root for and help along, just a good film that does the work for itself. Factor in an iconographic director, one whose star was chiseled into the pavement for much flimsier material, and it’s all too easy to take such a film for granted. Which is funny, because Million Dollar Baby is just the sort of film that we all want but no longer dare expect. It’s a fine work of art.

If anyone tells you that Million Dollar Baby “isn’t really about boxing,” they’re doing a disservice to the film and overlooking its central achievement. It’s all about boxing ­ every second, every frame. You can’t fake sincerity in film, not for 135 minutes, anyway. The respect with which Clint Eastwood and everyone else involved in the film shows for the subject ­ the sport, the work, the people, the relationships and spaces between and around them ­ is apparent, and seemingly total. The filmmakers take these people seriously, and since these people take themselves and their work seriously, there’s a seamlessness, a Bazinian fidelity to real experience, that makes the mise-en-scène believable, and thus passionately, respectfully human. It’s so pleasing to watch people work at something they love. This has been the inspiration for many a well-meant film, usually about teaching, occasionally starring Million Dollar Baby’s Morgan Freeman. Eastwood’s film achingly succeeds where most others benignly fail by remaining true to subject. Who’s going to pretend that a life in boxing is the noblest of pursuits, the most rewarding of endeavors? Not the characters in this play. Yet it’s their job. It’s what they know, what they do well. These are people who haven’t the patience or luxury for pretentions. It is what it is. But it’s not just slugging away, either.

No one’s brazenly miscast, there’s no showboating of weight-loss or gain, no snazz or pizzazz behind the camera. The story is familiar and unremarkable. But it is told well. For the three major roles, Freeman and Eastwood are cast in Freeman and Eastwood parts, and Hilary Swank is employed, again, as the tough-cookie white-trash lass that only she ought to play (got that, Charlize?). Originality isn’t the point here. These are three very good actors asked to do what they do best, and I don’t think any of them have ever been better. Freeman moves with the creaky confidence of a man who coexists with his own defeat, who keeps somber company with kindred kicked-to-the-curb souls. Eastwood’s never looked older, sounded older, and yet he comes off, gradually, inversely, newer and stranger and less sure of himself as the movie progresses. Swank is simply the most plausible athlete I’ve ever seen in a fiction film. Her performance literalizes the film’s dedication to subject. She expresses herself only ­ yet fully ­ when fighting. Similarly, director, writer, cameraman and crew, stay within the confines of genre and form (though largely, miraculously, without abusing whip-snaps or slo-mo). They stay inside the ring. The collective focus builds to an emotional payoff that’s dignified and earned, and still true to character and milieu. We may have heard something like it before, heard Freeman’s voiceover, seen Eastwood’s snarl, seen plenty of other heads hit the canvas ­ but the story is told and performed with such conviction that nothing’s quite like it. Think of a classic ­ or even pedestrian ­ piece of music, performed with both aggression and restraint by players that listen as well as they play, pushing each other and their audience, and just clicking.

There’s a lot you can take from Million Dollar Baby, the sorts of truths that make people say “it isn’t really about boxing, it’s about...life” or whatever. But by fully investing themselves in the telling, in the work and sweat of getting somewhere, greater truths arise but don’t obscure the story. It’s the deep, entranced investment in the music, in each individual note, that generates power. We’re most apparent, most empathetic, when we’re fully engaged. It works on the basic level first ­ the planting of feet before delivering the blow, the delivering of the blow before bracing for retaliation ­ and the rest just flows freely. Or that’s how it’s supposed to seem. A minor marvel, Million Dollar Baby’s most concerned with things that don’t come easy, and with appreciating and recognizing the work ­ and agony and fear ­ that grinds behind the illusion of ease.