|After depressing the movie-going public with the harsh 2003 film, Mystic River, Clint Eastwood steps further into the darkness with his latest difficult cinematic offering, the boxing drama Million Dollar Baby. As was the case in Mystic, the lead performances are strong ones, though some of the supporting actors suffer from lack of character development (namely Morgan Freeman). It might be harsh to suggest that Freeman is wasted in his role, but his appearance in the film certainly could have carried more weight.|
So it is perhaps fortunate that lead actress Hilary Swank can dominate the screen in any role she decides to takes on. But Swank must push hard in this film because Paul Haggis's screenplay doesn't allow the actors any really juicy dialogue, and much of the film's intensity must come from the physical performances more than what anyone says. And there are moments when the screenplay seems to call for a bit of comedic banter, but the dialogue seems to feel more bitter than it should.
The antagonistic relationship between Clint Eastwood's hardened boxing trainer, "Frankie Dunn," and his long-time assistant "Eddie Dupris," played by Morgan Freeman, is nicely complicated, but unnecessarily simplified by an overabundance of squinty looks and hard stares. Eastwood's verbal growl is practiced and gritty, but how valuable is his performance if the substance behind it sometimes falls flat? And what type of errors would a screenwriter need to make to push Morgan Freeman's performance into the banal?
It's amazing, but unfortunately completely true, that Freeman's beautiful voice and diction becomes something less and less worth paying attention to as this difficult film wears on. It's often been said that one could listen to Freeman "read the phonebook" and it would be an interesting experience. Certain actors who possess golden voices seem to charm audiences with whatever they say, but the dialogue of Million Dollar Baby falls so flat that even Freeman's voice can't overcome the lack of interesting discourse.
And if Morgan Freeman's vocal talents are wasted, Clint Eastwood's talent for comedy and intensity are muddled, one can only imagine the difficulties Hilary Swank would have had in making an impression on the audience since she carries many years less acting experience than her venerated co-stars. It is probably fortunate that much of Swank's performance is spent in the physicality of boxing mode and that she's able to push her physical presence into something emotionally gripping.
A dark and unforgiving film regarding content, the movie is also a difficult piece of art to look at with the dark and dirty locations and the dim lighting present in most of the interiors. From Frankie Dunn's dusty boxing gym to the poorly appointed room where Morgan Freeman's character bunks up when he's not working, there's a layer of suffocating dankness that does its best to add a visual weight around the necks of a group of hardened characters. It wasn't enough that the screenwriter would make the lives of these characters as difficult as possible. It seemed necessary to make the emotional and the physical aspects severely difficult as well.
And it's possible that the creation of this difficult environment was created with the expressed purpose of making a film "worthy" of talented actors and their Oscar chase. A film made with the idea that it would create good professional buzz for its actors and critical acclaim for its producers, writers, and other above-the-line talent. And while endeavors such as these might produce the adoration of the critics, it's a good idea to warn one's audience of the emotional slap or two they'll receive when they view a film like this. It's a difficult journey for the actors and the audience.
Million Dollar Baby is a film that tries to pack and emotional punch (let's just pull out all the stops here regarding puns, shall we?), but succeeds more in beating down the senses and emotions of its audience. As in his equally dark Mystic River, this film leaves you with a heavy heart, though Million has a more difficult task since the screenplay is not a strong one (Mystic might have been a difficult film to watch, but the character interaction was consistently strong). Hilary Swank's lead performance is strong professionally and physically, though she and her co-stars are underserved by a weak screenplay.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.