Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby – 2004

Director – Clint Eastwood

Starring – Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Elvis or the Beatles?  Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth? Biggie or Tupac?  If you like one, liking the other is out of the question.  Your stance on each of these pressing issues has the power to determine what category others lump you into, and more importantly, it determines where you place yourself.  I would argue that, as in the music world, so too in the world of film.  One crucial example of this “either, or” mentality is found in the career of Clint Eastwood.  Either you like him as an actor (generally his earlier career), or you like him as a director (equally as generally his later career).  I’ve found that I like one, and definitely am not  a fan of the other.

Eastwood, for the entirety of his career has stayed busy, prolific even.  Stories of his work ethic are stuff of legend in Hollywood, no matter which side of the camera he finds himself on.  As an actor, he has a steely intensity that gave life to roles such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry series, the man with no name from his spaghetti western days, and Private Kelly of Kelly’s Heroes.  As a director, this intensity translates to a certain austerity, an emptiness that never feels finished.  Sure it has all the bells and whistles, star actors, polished editing, and usually an unflinching story, yet his direction has always left me wanting.

It’s fair to say that I prefer Eastwood’s acting more than his directing, and thusly was not a huge fan of Million Dollar Baby.  Eastwood’s bifurcated tale of the never-say-die female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and her curmudgeonly old trainer Frank Dunn is actually made up from two different short stories from the same author, which would explain the distinctly different nature of the two halves.  Fitzgerald, played here by Swank, manages to worm her way into Dunn’s heart through sheer pluck and can do attitude.  Luckily for the both of them she turns out to be a decent fighter despite her age, and apparent lack of skill at the beginning.  She ends up in a series of fights, heading for the top until tragedy strikes.  Without giving away too much, Fitzgerald and her trainer / father-figure are forced to make some pretty hard choices by the end of the film.

This film, just like Mystic River, Invictus, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and yes even the beloved Unforgiven, is missing something.  The problem comes in when I can’t put my finger on exactly what is missing.  The stories, and acting all seem somehow sewn together and incomplete.  We get almost no detail about how Fitzgerald came to be so pugnacious or why Dunn ended up as such a grouch.  We’re given a little bit of a clue as to why he accepts her with the inclusion of a few lines about how he is estranged from his daughter, but most other details are left to our imagination.

Acting wise Eastwood has the goods (I mean he does have a career filled with grumpy characters), but unfortunately Swank doesn’t.  Now I have never really been a fan of her, but critically speaking she seems to only have one set of traits that she falls back on for each and every role that she takes.  Abused (emotionally or physically, she is versatile enough for both) hillbilly characters.  Morgan Freeman, is always good at what he does, unfortunately most of his acting is used as a storytelling method in the very unnecessary voice over segments.  His considerable talent is wasted in the role he’s given, all I can guess is that Eastwood just likes having him in his movies.

The two stories that make up the film aren’t enough, by themselves, to flesh out a feature-length film no matter who is directing them, but with Eastwood’s minimalist style it falls flat quicker than it otherwise would.  While it isn’t a terrible movie, I think it may have been included on this list because it was at the time a controversial film that people were talking about.  It doesn’t hold up, and most likely will be replaced at some point in future editions of this book to make room for something else.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Live your dreams. Get paralyzed.  Kill yourself.” – Ashley

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.