Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)
Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!
We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?
Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.
What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.
It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.
With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.
This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.
It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).
Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.
Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.