When everybody was falling all over themselves trying to out-rave everybody else in their reviews of Mystic River, I couldn’t quite get a bead on what the hubbub was about. I thought the movie had its moments but, overall, was wildly overrated. This year it’s different. Everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon for Clint Eastwood’s latest and all I’ve got to say is make room for me.
It is not exactly in the Hollywood tradition for filmmakers to improve with age. Nonetheless, at 74, Eastwood is doing the finest work of his long and considerable career directing, starring in and even scoring Million Dollar Baby. The picture tells the stories of an aging trainer who operates a run down Los Angeles gym, his closest friend, an ex-fighter (Morgan Freeman) and a young woman (Hilary Swank) whose unlikely dreams of glory in the ring impact their lives in ways more profound than they can possibly anticipate.
I would have bet that Swank would prove a one hit wonder given the by and large forgettable stuff she’s been involved in since winning an Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry in 1999. And I would have lost bigtime. She gives the performance of the year in the role of a waitress who was raised dirt poor but believes with all her heart that she was born to be a champion.
At the start of the film, she introduces herself to Eastwood, explains that she’s been boxing for four years and asks him to become her trainer. He declines. For one thing, he doesn’t “train girls.” For another, his dance card is all filled up between running the gym and managing a promising fighter who’s just been offered a title shot.
Not the type to take no for an answer, she starts showing up at the gym and working out day and night often long after all its other regulars have left. When Eastwood’s fighter trades him in for a new manager, Freeman convinces him to give Swank a chance. To his astonishment, she turns out to be as good as she thinks. She has a right hook that, with his help, takes her right to the top.
That’s not what this movie is about however. This isn’t The Next Karate Kid. It’s much more along the lines of an anti-Rocky. Million Dollar Baby happens to involve a boxer but it’s not a boxing movie in the standard come from nowhere-defy the odds-rise to triumph sense. This is a movie about life, about the good and bad things which have happened to three people who find each other at the right moment and the good and bad things which happen to them after that. Some are very bad. Eastwood tells the story at a pace well under the Hollywood speed limit, tosses in details so beguiling they seem about to sprout into motion pictures of their own and bathes his subjects in shadows as lovely as those in any Rembrandt.
You will not come across more compelling characters brought to life more convincingly anytime soon. If Swank doesn’t go home with another Oscar, the game is fixed. Even with nothing left of his voice but a ragged whisper, Eastwood gives a performance with more dimension than Nicolas Cage, Tom Cruise or even Leonardo DiCaprio could muster on their best day. The icing on the cake is another note perfect portrayal by Freeman. He and Eastwood did some dark, searching work together a few years ago in Unforgiven. They take it to another level here.
It is quite simply a classic. A lot of really good movies made their way into theaters this past year and a lot of fine actors gave first rate performances. Watch The Aviator, though and then watch the 25th film directed by Clint Eastwood. They’re in completely different classes. A life story is one thing. A story about life and its terrible beauty is another. There were plenty of contenders in 2004 but only one that truly was a heavyweight.