Skip to main content

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby
(2004)

(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

After I first saw the film, I did wonder if my profound distaste towards the whole spectacle wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the euthanasia plotline being shoehorned into the last half hour, since despite Clint’s comments, it’s pretty clear getting wise old Morgan Freeman to do your voiceover offers a tacit endorsement of Maggie’s chosen way out of being condemned to a quadriplegic existence (by which, I’m not condemning the picture’s ultimate perspective, but I am the method it goes about getting there) . But I concluded, and this is reinforced by revisiting the picture, that it was actually a cumulative response to the crude devices and characterisations employed by screenwriter Paul Haggis throughout (he’d be at that kind of thing again in the following year’s Best Picture winner Crash; lest you think I’m entirely down on the guy, I thought In the Valley of Elah was pretty good, although I haven’t watched it a second time).

Credit to Clint, though, the predilections that can expose him badly – a ponderous, languorous approach to editing, an unfussy, some might say lazy, shooting style – lend themselves to making Million Dollar Baby seem more substantial than it is. He really takes his time – two and a quarter hours – to tell this story, because he knows what he’s inveigling is an elaborate rug pull, intended to snatch profound defeat from the jaws of success. Like he’s engineering the twisted, serious drama equivalent of an Eli Roth flick.

Aiding him is the aforementioned Freeman, whose rent-a-gravitas is basically The Shawshank Redemption redux (earning him an Oscar for his troubles, but why this movie, of all the ones that would have been more deserving recognition of his skills – I guess it’s testament to his making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak, or forcing that bitter medicine down), spouting vacuous homilies, many of them concerning the art of boxing, like they’re nuggets of priceless wisdom. And Clint and Freeman do have a marvellously easy, freewheeling chemistry, no matter the quality of the material; if a movie, by their presence, keeps reminding you of Unforgiven and Shawshank, the dice is heavily loaded in its favour, straight off the bat (and further mixed metaphors to follow).

Of course, everyone remembers the last thirty minutes of Million Dollar Baby, but structurally and retrospectively, it’s abundantly clear that the entire piece is designed to bring Swank’s good-gal low; if this wasn’t played in such deadly earnest, it could only be read as parody. Scrap (Freeman) introduces Maggie with “She grew up knowing only one thing – she was trash” and Haggis proceeds to propound an almost Forrest Gumpian simplicity in her determination (there’s a problem here too, in that she is, by turns, simple and whip-smart, depending on what’s required in the scene). Her thirty-second birthday speech is excruciating (“If I’m too old for this, I’ve got nothing. Is that enough truth for you?”) The material is hard baked in corniness long before the nihilism comes to the fore in the last round, taking perverse pleasure in doing everything it can to undermine her upbeat persistence.

Her mother (the now ever-present Margo Martindale) and sister (Riki Lindhome) are utterly loathsome, responding to Maggie’s generosity with complaints and following it up by trying to sign away the girl’s earnings. The opponent (Lucia Rijker) in her fateful bout is ludicrously OTT in her relentless, dirty-fighting viciousness. And not content with making her quadriplegic, Eastwood and Haggis then have her lose a leg and bite off her tongue – seriously, Eli Roth must have beensoenvious. The movie would be written off as ridiculously excessive, revelling in its own sadism, if it hadn’t been so venerated.

We shouldn’t forget either that, while we have to witness Maggie’s suffering, the one who reallyagonises through all this is Clint’s Frankie. Million Dollar Baby is designed to reinforce Clint’s guilt-wracked hero narrative, the trainer who can never forgive himself for Scrap losing an eye, so goes to confession more frequently than any other member of his congregation and scrupulously avoids taking his boxers to prize level for fear of their safety. Maggie’s fate isn’t, in fact, about her – she’s a plaything to toss about – it’s about making a good man suffer. A good man who, following her mercy killing, nobly disappears, never to be seen again. How very, deeply poetic.

It also fits with Clint’s self-styled machismo – still going strong in The Mule at 88 with his threesomes – that there’s also very much a sexualised component, only further emphasised because Frankie is so thoroughly decent in that regard; Clint is still virile, Maggie is attracted to him (no other boxer would leap into their trainer’s arms like an impassioned teen cheerleader), but nothing could come of it because he’s like her father and she’s like his daughter.

Haggis has dutifully come armed with a shopping list of “character-building” flourishes for his lead, little star’s touches to endear him to the audience. So we have Clint being rude to his preacher – “You’re standing outside my church, comparing God to Rice Krispies?”; “Can you spare a few minutes for the immaculate conception?” – like it’s a bit of fun, until he ultimately has a serious heart to heart. This coming from a period when Haggis was still a devoted Scientologist is a bit rich. It’s also conflicted, with the preacher man cheaply reduced to swearing on first appearance, so riled is he by Frankie, but then allowed to offer his own advice (which Frankie ignores for Morgan’s humanist teachings; well, of courseyou’d listen to Morgan. His voice is tantamount to mind control).

Then there are the gym’s supporting characters (Jay Baruchel’s idiot wannabe boxer, Antony Mackie’s cruel talent and Michael Pena’s chirpy sparring partner), who appear to be needless filler up until the late-stage point when we realise their purpose; they’re there entirely to facilitate Scrap’s hero-moment reveal, doubtless retro-engineered that way (“Now I get to fight a retard and an old man”). The positive side of this retrospective visit is how many now well-known names are now inhabiting the fringes of the picture; besides those I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mike Colter as the boxer who finally leaves Frankie for the big leagues.

Of which, the fights are well-composed, such as they are, in no-nonsense Clint fashion – as with American Sniper, he knows what he’s doing with his action, but it’s to no avail if the surrounding material is fundamentally unsound. And Haggis provides the final capper in his movie of facile twists supporting its macabre cause; Scrap’s narration is a letter to Frankie’s estranged daughter (one of the letters that’s always returned unread). It’s a cruel world of unsung heroes where no one will know the true Frankie, the code he lived by, except us, the audience who have been let in on his secret (majesty).

Million Dollar Baby is at first glance achingly sincere. Actually, it’s acutely cynical. All you need to underline the tragedy of Maggie’s fate is a low-key piano, the one Eastwood mordantly tinkles away on to complete the effect; in Unforgiven, the soundtrack worked as a lyrical contrast to a life of savage violence. Here, it’s overkill, designed to beat you into submission. Which Million Dollar Baby did resoundingly. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.