Hype generated by movie studio publicists is something to be looked upon with, at the very least, suspicion. Hype, on the other hand, generated as a result of a confluence of critical opinion, particularly in the year-end awards season, might be resisted for other reasons, the overinflation of expectations being prime among them. Right now Sideways is garnering the kind of praise and critics' groups awards that might make you think the enthusiasm for the film was near unanimous. But one glance at the Village Voice Take 6 year-end critics poll* reveals a plethora of alt-weekly wisenheimers who can’t distance themselves from Sideways and the appearance of critical consensus fast enough. And last week, even among the fairly like-minded habitués of Slate magazine's online Movie Club* there was enough dissent on the subject of Alexander Payne’s movie to suggest an honest-to-God backlash against one of the serious contenders for the Best Picture Academy Award.
But there have been enough critics both praising and damning the new Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby to make one wonder what the inspiration for such a polarized response might be. Supporters and detractors both have been taking fairly remarkable measures to keep the trajectory of the story, about a grizzled ex-“cut man” who reluctantly takes a female boxer under his wing and guides her to an unlikely professional career, under wraps in their reviews. In fact, they’ve been resorting to levels of abstract language designed to be deliberately vague, thus allowing the writers to talk about story elements that some find familiar yet transcendent, and others find fatally mired in that familiarity.
I’d like to think that one can account for that kind of care from even someone who dislikes the film as respect both for the power to be experienced in the story the movie tells, and for the potential audience that might not want their opportunity to experience that power spoiled. A good writer like Salon’s Charles Taylor, whose support of films as far-ranging as Femme Fatale, 13 Going On 30, Mr. 3000 and Hero I continue to value, finds ways to express his discontent over Million Dollar Baby* that preserve the surprises the story holds in store. But even so, many of his observations feel lazy and unconvincing (as they did in his pan of Sideways)*, the product of a writer with a chip on his shoulder rather than an openness to what’s actually on the screen.
Taylor dismisses Tom Stern’s “alleged” cinematography (what does that mean, exactly?) as “dingy,” looking as if Warner Bros. forgot to go out and buy light bulbs. It’s an ostensibly funny line, but one that certainly does not reflect the experience I had with the movie, which mixes realistic and expressive lighting to stunning effect without crossing the line into excessive stylization. Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, as an ex-boxer and Eastwood’s longtime friend, are often seen bisected by shadows, their upper halves lost in darkness, or their faces encircled in light while the rest of their bodies remain hidden, yet such lighting never seems schematic or pretentious because it is remarkably well integrated into Stern’s overall approach. Can this not be taken as a deliberately metaphoric attempt by the cinematographer to visually realize screenwriter Paul Haggis' characters, people on the verge of being swallowed up by their fears? Eastwood and his director of photography also have a practical reason for the look of the film, being that a small, grimy environment like a boxing gym may, at times, be a dingy one as well. Taylor’s mistake is in assuming there’s no purpose to that dinginess beyond its function as evidence of the cinematographer’s incompetence. Why is it that those who find plenty to like in this picture seem to be willing to endure the offensive lighting that so irked Taylor (as well as his wife and fellow Salon senior critic Stephanie Zacharek)? Perhaps those poor, misinformed folks, hypnotized and deadened by Eastwood's galumphing technique, don’t know good cinematography any more than they know good storytelling. Or perhaps it’s just the light bulb in Taylor’s screening room projector that needs attention.
When Taylor begins his rant with lines like “Have any of the critics praising Million Dollar Baby actually ever seen another movie—any movie?”, following up with an entire piece constructed around similar bait lines designed to shut down contrary argument before it’s even made, it’s a good indication that his intent is to score points off of Eastwood and those stupid enough to enjoy his films, not to write a well-considered piece of film criticism. Suggesting Eastwood must be the real Manchurian Candidate—how else to explain the extraordinary praise given his drab, plodding movies?—is, I suppose, clever, but it’s not very inquisitive, and it’s a good deal shallower than the pleasures to be had in Million Dollar Baby that he so humorlessly derides. Dismissals like this one seem to come back-loaded with attitudes about Eastwood that well predate the movie at hand. Of course, one might also say the same thing about some of the writers who rave about his work too—nothing smells quite as bad as a sycophantic film critic. In my own defense I would point out that for every Eastwood-directed film I’ve loved, including Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Bronco Billy, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, there’s a Pale Rider, Absolute Power, Honkytonk Man, Sudden Impact and Pink Cadillac lurking in the oeuvre just waiting to be applied as a corrective to too much adulation. Too bad writers like Taylor can’t hold themselves to the same standard when it comes to blanket dismissals of an artist and his audience.
Not that Million Dollar Baby is perfect. Eastwood’s handling of a subplot involving boxer Hilary Swank’s hillbilly family is handled with far less subtlety than every other element of the movie’s narrative, and as a result the typically fine character actress Margo Martindale is left twisting in the wind to an uncomfortable degree. And an incident that changes the entire trajectory of the movie is left partially unresolved—we find ourselves wanting some closure as to the fate of one of Swank’s ring opponents, but neither Eastwood nor screenwriter Paul Haggis supplies it (there’s some more of that protective abstract language for you). But the remarkable emotion and quiet approach of the rest of the film makes those glitches stand out in relief far more than they would in a movie that was rife with those sorts of narrative pockmarks. And Eastwood’s splendidly reticent handling of the mysterious relationship with his own daughter, a distant echo of his relationship with Swank who returns each letter he sends her unopened, has a correlative in Kevin Bacon’s relationship with his estranged wife in Mystic River. Bacon’s wife calls him at several points throughout the film but never speaks, and no matter how Eastwood tries to weight the moment it never comes across as more than a literary conceit. But the simple sight of Eastwood, in Baby, silently opening his front door, seeing the latest letter stamped “Return to Sender” on his living room floor, and filing it away in a shoebox, conveys the same sort of anguish at separation with none of the narrative contrivance that marred those phone calls in Mystic River.
Million Dollar Baby is, to these eyes, a masterful filmmaker's new masterpiece . My assumption with “Movie of the Moment” articles like this one is that if you’re interested in the film you will have either already seen it or will have had plenty of opportunity by now to become aware of enough reviews that the plot will probably already be more familiar than it should be. My suggestion regarding Million Dollar Baby, a remarkably fluid, artfully crafted, old-fashioned work of pure storytelling, would be to forgo reading anything further about it and just go see it, lose yourself in its world of struggle and the possibility (but not the guarantee) of redemption, and reacquaint yourself with what a great film can do—provide exhilaration in amounts equal to the heartbreak held within a seemingly familiar story so well told as to become a soaring, new creation.
(* As soon as I become more familiar with how to provide links to articles that aren't simply long-ass addresses pasted into the midst of an article, I will return to this piece and get push-button connections to the Village Voice Take 6 poll, the Slate Movie Club, Charles Taylor's reviews of Million Dollar Baby and Sideways on Salon.com, and A.O. Scott's rapturous review of Baby in the New York Times. In the meantime, I heartily encourage you to head to these sites and check the writers out for yourself.)