Monday, January 31, 2005

6 Hudred Million Dollar Baby

Cathy and I went to see Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby yesterday. We got there 20 minutes before the movie (I need to be at most films 20 minutes before or I get cranky and unmanageable and downright peevish) and sat through the awful onslaught of pre-movie commercial music videos, one of which included Shania Twain walking through some generic urban landscape handing out party invitations to 20-something white people who upon receiving them gaze back with muse like adoration. There are numerous shots of Shania shaking her head to denote, I think, unrestrained Shania merrymaking. Her music seemed to be made out of that cardboard eggs come in.

Million Dollar Baby is, in my mind, a far better film then the much heralded Mystic River, which despite its fantastic across the board acting and perfectly inflected Boston accents, only became exceptional during its final 10 minutes, when it took on a spooky mythic resonance. Million Dollar Baby, however, was stunning from beginning to end, a minor masterpiece flawed only by a couple unnecessary white trash interludes that veered too close to trailer-park cliché.

The story itself is a kind of archetype, well worn and familiar but Eastwood makes no attempt to hide the stories cogs. What he does, and what so few mainstream Hollywood films seem unable to accomplish these days, is to tell the story with a graceful nonchalance, free of firework displays and a refreshing modicum of the unnecessary. The film focuses on just three characters and it tells their story so well (and Eastwood, Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman are all outstanding) and with such requisite economy that it’s an elegant, oftentimes exquisite character study of the time worn story arc of protagonists haunted by their pasts and offered redemption.

The tragedy that arrives midway through the film could have unhinged things, and my initial response to it was that Eastwood had lost the reigns and dipped his ladle into that big easy pool of Hollywood pathos. (Those bargain-basement pools of cheap sentiment lie like pitfalls all around the film and it’s to Eastwood’s great credit that he avoids them all.) It’s here, after the tragedy, that the trailer park clichés rear their ugly heads again and sucker punch us. It’s Eastwood’s biggest misstep and while its presence is glaring (and reminds us of just how perfect the rest of the film’s classical narrative has been progressing) it’s one of those stumbles that I was quick to forgive, to subtract and cast aside. The central story (surrogate father/daughter) comes roaring back at us and the tragedy and its ensuing complications and actions carry the themes of loss and regret, of what Amy Taubin called “a grief that can never be assuaged,” to a scene of such heartrending poignancy and power that it’s shattering.

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