While the passionate, rose-tinted glasses of Hollywood has conjured up much love for the fictional and real heroes of the boxing world, Million Dollar Baby strives to strike down with some harsh, cutting realism. Its grim and dingy aesthetics capture the tepid grey tones of director Clint Eastwood, but at least this time they have a reasonable purpose. Sweat, blood and tears throw themselves around the walls of a gym, providing Eastwood and company with the opportunity to build themselves as fighters, and as people. Distant emotions make themselves uncomfortable almost immediately, and as Million Dollar Baby pushes its stars towards an inevitable reconciliation of fighting and fears, the emotional strain on them all comes to the centre of the stage.
Narration from Morgan Freeman provides ample storytelling and bleeds the narrative into the background of Eastwood’s characters. It is the only way these rough, gruff men can communicate their feelings and thoughts without breaking their stereotypical aversion to feeling. That much is offered well and does make sense for Eastwood and Freeman, whose performances as Frankie Dunn and Eddie Dupris are magnificent. Dupris is the easier of the two, digestible because he is open to the process of taking on Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) as a protégé. He hands her over to the inevitably reserved Dunn, whose attitudes towards her are ice-cold. Of course, they warm to one another. There is respect found between them, eventually. It is standard, but desirable considering how hard these two performers work to make their eventual, strong trainer and trainee relationship worth our time.
It is a state of desperation that these two characters bond over. Fitzgerald needs the escapism of working the bag, throwing punches and finding solace in the wise words of an elderly trainer. Dunn needs the new challenge presented to him. He speaks of challenges often, rising to the threat of a new mark on life, and his initial refusal to do so brings about the strong notes of hypocritical characteristics. They ebb away and bring out a strong performance for Eastwood. The man best known for his silent heroics finds comfort in the elderly figure that gives guidance to those who work hard enough to receive his attention. Eastwood is at least consistent with this, especially in his direction. His utilisation of lighting, dark rooms with effective spotlighting and use of shadows is stunning. He comes into his own, finding the sweet spot between his unique style and his ability to spin a strong narrative.
Two characters of a dark and dreary past come together, utilise their talents, and seek out that bittersweet, happy ending that they’ve longed for. It is the weight of their pain and the strike of their battle that makes Million Dollar Baby one of the finest Eastwood offerings, both from his acting and his directing. A confused man battling lapses in his faith and finding out new problems for his personal life finds redemption in new challenges. We all find some form of redemption or reconciliation in a change-up from time to time. It is necessary to find our own self-redemption, and Million Dollar Baby is an encouraging piece. Pick up the pieces and strive for a goal, that is simple enough, and Eastwood’s direction makes it all the more believable.