Don’t confuse Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby for a sports film — you’ll be sorely (no pun intended) disappointed. Instead, regard it as the kind of film that looks at social and personal conflicts by using boxing as a catalyst, much in the way Remember the Titans used football to discuss racial tension. It’s a gutsy way to go, but it works because of just how much it deviates from the norm.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a misfit young woman trying to support her mother but swept up with a love of boxing. Meanwhile, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) tries to ignore her as he continues being the crotchety pro who runs and lives in the club where she makes her male counterparts (including future star Anthony Mackie) laugh at her passionate but messy technique. It’s not until Frankie’s longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) convinces the gym owner to give her a chance, and soon the 31-year-old waitress finds herself in the middle of the middleweight ring.
Million Dollar Baby could have easily been pushed to the side as another coach-protege flick that ends tragically but spins its tail out of human sacrifice and redemption. If it had been, it wouldn’t have gained the accolades it did from both the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press. Instead, it takes a dark look at the mentor-mentee relationship, sculpting a toxic relationship that culminates in disaster rather than an underdog story that inspires. What they have is dressed up as a way of filling the spaces left by absent daughters and dead fathers — a mistake in its own right, as that’s hardly what their relationship becomes.
The relationship between Frankie and Maggie isn’t a father-daughter or grandfather-granddaughter one, although their age differences could certainly point that way. There’s no doubt that by the end of the film, Frankie feels a paternal connection with his boxing queen. But his final action — the one that shocks audiences — is made out of a much darker relationship. Frankie isn’t a family member or friend, but rather Maggie’s savior. She’s his project, and he’s the one who decides when it’s finished. In that way, Million Dollar Baby is disturbing. Frankie isn’t a father saying goodbye to his hard work but an artist scrapping what could have been a masterpiece. There’s heartache involved, but it’s a different kind of heartache. And it’s one that will haunt Frankie for the short amount of life he has left.
Eastwood’s film isn’t a sports film that inspires or saddens (or both), but it uses that mask as a way of exploring darker sides of life, such as deadbeat family and euthanasia. Maggie and Frankie provide colorful characters to deliver these conflicts, deviating from the expected to shock audiences into contemplation.