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Powerful performances drive ‘Million Dollar’ success

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Who would’ve thought that the greatest era of Clint Eastwood’s career would come this late? A neo-renaissance that began with “Unforgiven” continued with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “Mystic River.” His latest film, “Million Dollar Baby,” is one of the best films of 2004 and another winner in the same vein of excellence as Eastwood’s previous work.Eastwood has aged with remarkable grace, and “Million Dollar Baby” is a beautiful, unpretentious, difficult film that somehow manages to remain in an understated minor key despite its subject matter. The plot revolves around Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year old neophyte boxer who seeks the training of infamous “cut man” Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Although Dunn is initially reluctant to teach Fitzgerald because she is an older woman, he eventually agrees and the two begin working toward the welterweight championship.In ways, the film seems a contradiction: it initially appears to be one of the most simplistic major movies made by Hollywood last year, but it eventually reveals itself to be one of the most complex. “Million Dollar Baby” is far more than a simple story. It is well told and it reveals itself in the fight scenes. More “Raging Bull” than “Rocky,” it is handled with technical finesse that creates a surprising amount of tension – unlike most sports movies, the boxing itself is clearly not the main drive. Instead, the film is concerned with its characters and the underlying themes of the plot. Boxing here is not the focus of the plot, but a device used to explore the plot and nuances of the characters.Though his talents are manifold and well employed here, Eastwood’s greatest skill as a director is his ability to evoke powerful performances; “Million Dollar Baby” more than upholds this tradition. Swank’s portrayal of Maggie is pitch-perfect: tough, strong-headed, and yet utterly believable. Expect her to walk away with the Oscar come Feb. 27. Likewise, Freeman’s one-eyed gym assistant Eddie is more than merely the narrator/sidekick, he is a three-dimensional character with his own convincing subplot. Yet it is Eastwood himself who carries the film’s heart and soul. His portrayal of Frankie is perhaps the most internalized of the actor’s storied career, and while the film doesn’t resolve or spell out Frankie’s past, inferences can be made from Eastwood’s performance to comprehend him as a character. In a time when Hollywood seems to be spiraling out of control in its attempts at overblown epics peppered with vacuous special effects, the film’s minimalism and character-driven plot is a welcome change. By the end of the film, the audience cares very much for all of its characters. The film paints a stark and intimate portrait that examines not just one, but several unforgettable individuals.If asked to describe “Million Dollar Baby” in one word, a typical answer might be “dark.” And this would not be an unreasonable response; the film is very dark, both literally (through its excellent cinematography) and figuratively (through its thematic elements). A better word to describe Eastwood’s latest film, however, is “true.” This story is true to itself, true to its plot, true to its characters. Even the controversial ending is true in a way that few Hollywood films would dare to be. Whether one disagrees with how it ends, in this situation with these characters, it’s the only logical conclusion and Eastwood handles it unflinchingly.It doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Unforgiven,” but it also doesn’t aspire to do so. With that film, Eastwood seemed to have something to prove, with “Million Dollar Baby” it is obvious that he made the film he wanted to make. As a result, it ends up being his most intimate to date and an instant classic.