Thursday, February 17, 2005


"Million Dollar Baby." This is the real deal, intense and involving. Great acting. Hilary Swank deserves a ton of praise, which I guess she's getting, but I thought Clint was great in this. He's still underrated because of his spaghetti western days and the seeming simplicity of his Dirty Harry character/persona, but who else could have played this role? Maybe Albert Finney. Not Jack Nicholson (neat "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" parallel, though!). Maaaaaaybe Warren Beatty, if he could sustain the gravitas.

Between this and "Boys Don't Cry," Hilary Swank is lapping the field among actresses of her generation in pushing to extremes. Let's hope it doesn't devolve into daredevil stunt shows. Her work here is comparable to De Niro's in "Raging Bull" -- an obvious comp because they're both boxing movies (though far different in scale and theme), but more so because of the physical challenges/transformation involved. In her case, this refers not just to the obvious tough physical training required for the boxing scenes, but to the limitations imposed by her character's situation in the last act of the movie (no spoilers here!). Even in the early scenes, she is very physical, seeming to fight against a body that's limiting her just as much as her station in life is. The first act for her is about transforming her body so that her spirit (which is already plenty strong) can use it as a tool to escape her circumstances. She doesn't have many lines (and most of them are variations on asking Frank to train her), but she communicates everything she needs to with her body, face, voice and even breathing. That last verb will take on new meaning in the last act. (If I'm not mistaken, the first thing Frank says when he begins to break down and agree to train her is that she's breathing all wrong. Hmmm...)

Clint gets an early laugh with a line about the holy trinity of traditional Christianity. Do the three main characters in this film form a version of the holy trinity? Frank the father, Maggie the "son" (hey, she's 33 at the end!), Scrap the Holy Spirit, which the priest says is an expression of God's love. Ah, you could probably apply that template to just about any story.

The tone and pacing here were note-perfect and the dialogue had a way of taking unexpected, but completely natural, turns that occasionally went right past realism and into the realm of the sublime. The exchange between Frank and Scrap about Scrap's socks was a thing of beauty both in the way it was written and in the way Eastwood and Freeman played it. The pause that Freeman took before getting into it was one of those great small moments that sometimes slip into a movie. I didn't like "Mystic River" as much as I thought I would because the dialogue was too portentous and filled with Grand Meaning. Here, it was scaled down and plausible, without the weight of announcing the theme of the movie in every other scene. Compare Maggie's monologue about the dog while they're driving in the car (and Clint's response, including his appended tough guy backtracking) with any comparable scene in "Mystic River." My only real quibble was the exeunt of Maggie's family, which nodded toward caricature and farce. It didn't get there, though.

This was "The Bad News Bears" redone as adult tragedy, with Frank as Buttermaker, Maggie as Amanda, and Danger standing in for the rest of the team. I mean that as a compliment. (Billy Bob Thornton as Buttermaker in the remake? Genius.)

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