Monday, January 31, 2005

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (A movie review) - Semi-Spoiler warning. I tried my best but may have given away too much.

Clint Eastwood is the greatest working star in Hollywood. Ten years ago that honor may have gone to Paul Newman, but he only co-stars in a few movies now. Clint stars and directs and this time even writes the music. Eastwood portrays his own vulnerability in a way that other directors might not attempt. He looks plain old in the way Henry Fonda did in the last ten years of his life and I say Fonda because Eastwood makes a face that reminded me of Fonda. He did this thing with his mouth that I saw Fonda do in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ON GOLDEN POND. I’m not sure why it works but it made both of them look almost helpless. Fonda saves it for the last 20 minutes in “Once Upon a Time” when he realizes he’s being hunted by his own men. Eastwood shows it to us pretty early on here.

It’s been the unspoken conventional wisdom that Eastwood the director outshines Eastwood the actor, but Clint proves more than once in this film that it isn’t always so. I’m not surprised that he was nominated for best actor, because Eastwood the Director needed Eastwood the actor this time more than usual. You can’t teach a good actor to be a movie star, but sometimes a movie star teaches himself to be a better actor as he ages. Both Clark Gable and Paul Newman got better with age and the same goes with Eastwood.

It helps that Eastwood continues to give himself the kinds of roles where he seeks redemption. He blames himself for the Kennedy assassination (In the Line of Fire) or he has estranged children and he seeks reconciliation (Absolute Power, Million Dollar Baby). Way back in 1981 he played a drunken country singer that wanted to record an album before he died of consumption. In Heartbreak Ridge he redeems the loss in Vietnam by winning the battle in Grenada while winning back his ex-wife for good measure. In Unforgiven he balances the promises he made his dead wife with the realities of feeding his children. He’s the Astronaut in Space Cowboys that gets a second chance to go to space. In all of these movies he plays against the heroic action hero that we grew up with. He frequently shows naked vulnerability in a way that only an artist or an exhibitionist would attempt. Overcoming these obstacles makes him a different kind of hero than he use to be, but there is no doubt that he is a hero.

The Oscar nominations told me that this was going to be a serious movie, but I was pleasantly surprised with the way Eastwood used natural humor early on between his character and Morgan Freeman’s. Eastwood can be one of the most intimidating people in real life. I’ve seen his look scare interviewers and even Michael Moore didn’t talk any trash after he warned Moore to stay away from him. The humor here softens him up for the audience so when he gets tough with Hilary Swank later we know he doesn’t mean it. But I don’t think it’s just a device here either. Eastwood has always used humor in his films. Space Cowboys has running old age gags. In the Line of Fire has the joke of them ripping off their clothes and guns. True Crime has the race through the zoo. Even Dirty Harry had a witty catch phrase in each film.

Add the vulnerability and the humor and you have a real regular guy who also has the potential to be heroic. If you think about it, that’s a combination more recognized in romantic comedy than dramas and yet he always seems to make it work. It’s a treat this time too. Hilary Swank is everything she needs to be in the role. She shows guts, determination, and yet she never loses her innocence. Eastwood always picks good actresses over famous movie stars. He chooses Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden for roles when Hollywood would pick Helen Hunt or Gwyneth Paltrow.

But part of the effectiveness of Swank’s acting job here is that we see her through Eastwood’s eyes. She becomes the daughter Eastwood lost and we want her to win to please Clint. No one is surprised that she and the always interesting Morgan Freeman were nominated. But they shouldn’t be surprised for Eastwood either, because for as good as they are, it’s really a picture about an old trainer and how he comes to manage this girl.

There are certain moments in the film that will be played in Eastwood retrospectives. When Hilary Swank asks Clint to fix her broken nose so that she can go out and win the fight you cringe with the pain she must feel and see the love that Eastwood has for her at the same time.

One of Eastwood’s weaknesses as a director is that he doesn’t always get the proper payoff for his emotional moments. Space Cowboys plays as this geriatric romp which makes Tommy Lee Jones’ death surprising. They handle it by shooting him to the moon as some sort of last wish. It’s not the least bit believable in execution or emotion and yet it stands as some sort of attempt as a serious denouement.

In Mystic River, Tim Robbins' needless mistaken identity revenge murder doesn’t seem to bother the killer or the cop, though they were all kids together. Instead we’re left with his wife sadly wandering around in the middle of the street while life is normal for everyone else. The buildup between Penn and Robbins before the killing was such that it was for nothing if Penn doesn’t show some sort of remorse at the end and yet the moment is wasted.

Here the emotion seems to play out correctly all the way through. The tone seems consistent except for a few odd scenes with a priest. It’s the kind of movie where you’re happy for the characters and want to see them succeed.

One of the key points of the movie was how effort and persistence pay off. We see Hilary Swank work her way up from nothing through determination and hard work. It’s even more impressive when you meet her mother later who is angry that Hilary bought her a house. The mother is afraid that she’ll lose her welfare check. Later the same lazy mother is trying to money grub. Both scenes are great examples of Libertarian philosophy. The mother isn’t a victim of society, but a poor lazy fat old hag.

Our heroes struggle and yet win. Eastwood is estranged from his daughter, but he gets a new one. Freeman was blinded in the ring, but he’s still man enough to punch out a bully. Swank comes from poor lazy white trash and yet she has the spirit to win.

So it came as a complete surprise to me that Swank gives up at the end. The screenwriter penned a nice little speech about how she was only two pounds at birth and her daddy called her a fighter. The lesson she seems to learn from her life experience is that she should use her last dying breath fighting to give up. Her desire is consistent with the earlier libertarian philosophy of self-determination, but inconsistent with her life up to that point. If Swank was such a quitter why did she leave Missouri? Why did she train so hard to fight against the odds?

Was the ending intended to make a political point or was it a device so that we could see Clint struggle with his own heroism. Is Clint strong for giving her what she wants or weak for going against his own beliefs? I think the movie tries to have it both ways. Even his exile at the end is never explained as a punishment for immorality or a new lease on life. And I don’t think it’s meant to be ambiguous. I think you see Clint struggle to show what a good man he is and yet doing what he thinks is the wrong thing has no consequences for him. Just like Penn’s decision to off Robbins in Mystic River lacks reflection and consequences. Although it is preposterous that the authorities cannot locate Clint on his own property, you’re left with the impression that he’ll spend his life in safe seclusion.

I think it would have been consistent to have Clint worry over his mistakes and yet have Hilary be the beacon of hope as she had been all throughout the earlier part of film. It might not be a perfect life but Eastwood and Swank still would have had each other despite the negatives. Heroic people are capable of weak acts, but the script doesn’t even hint that she is being weak.

The more I think about it, the screenwriter must have wanted to make the point that her decision was heroic and not cowardly thus it should be legal. Now while you can make the case that her decision should be legal because of self-determination, the writer didn’t do enough explaining of why it was heroic. He seems to be saying “well this character is very heroic throughout and has done nothing un-heroic, therefore her every decision is by definition, heroic.” That’s no argument just manipulation by the screenwriter god.

I’ve got more thinking to do on how this could have ended better, but it’s too Eastwood’s credit that I can’t stop thinking about it. It's a film that shouldn't be missed by the serious moviegoer.

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