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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. 


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