Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

I never know what to say about Clint Eastwood movies, except maybe, “Watch ‘em.”

At their best, as in Million Dollar Baby, they are entirely about the story. If the story sucks, so does the movie. But Eastwood seems to have an eye for great stories so it’s not likely you’ll find him taking on a clunker.

With Million Dollar Baby, he gives us a textbook example of storytelling.

Eastwood’s a clever filmmaker. Not clever in the sense of playing cinematic tricks or in having an agenda for his film, but in the sense that he knows how to tell a story and has certain techniques he uses to convey it. The “trick” he uses (for lack of a better word) is in only partially revealing certain elements of the film – sometimes characters, sometimes the story, sometimes relevant information.

This doesn’t necessarily refer to overt information. Sometimes it’s done in the way a character is lit and how the shadows fall – they’re only partially revealed.

He invites the audience in to be a participant in the storytelling, allowing our imagination to fill in blanks – rightly or wrongly.

The result is that while the film has been heading to its conclusion in a single-minded, unadorned fashion, we’ve been anticipating other possible ends.

In Million Dollar Baby we have a movie in three acts, the first two of which seem to be one thing. We get wonderful, engaging characters and what seems a template story about three people on society’s fringes angling at a chance for redemption.

As an audience, we think we know where the film is going and there’s some pleasure in watching the film unfold toward its anticipated end.

But in the third act, Eastwood takes us to a place altogether different and we realize we haven’t been watching the kind of movie we thought we were, but something else.

Only when we’ve seen the entire film do we realize why some of the elements from the previous two thirds have been there. In the end, everything comes together and makes sense. But not as we anticipated.

What’s astonishing about a movie like Million Dollar Baby is that such a powerful story could be told with so much ease and restraint. Yet it’s the ease and restraint that give it power. By casting the film as he has, Eastwood places actors in roles they inhabit easily and comfortably (or so it comes across on screen – no doubt a good deal of work was involved). Morgan Freeman’s as “Scrap-Iron” Dupris and Hilary Swank as Maggie are their characters. And Eastwood perfectly casts himself as Frankie.

And everything about the film, from the cast to the crew to the directing, editing and cinematography, is a testament to the expression, “Less is more.”

Some movies wow you the first time you see them because they are so visually stunning. Million Dollar Baby is a lot more subtle. It walks in quietly, tells its story, and by the end you don’t feel you’ve seen a great movie. You feel you’ve been involved in a great story.

This is the first movie I’ve seen in quite a while that I feel I will watch over and over as the years go by. Fifty years from now, this movie won’t be an interesting old movie.

It will be one of the great movies. Highest recommendation.

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