Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on the stories of F.X. Toole
Starring Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Margo Martindale
Well, here we are – the penultimate entry of the Best Picture Project. After six years of toil and misery, there is but one After Cimarron? There will be no more, forever. But that, is for another day. On this day I bring you the entry I’d been putting off longer than the rest – Million Dollar Baby. Consciously putting off longer than the rest. And the delay? Imposed not because I was saving it for myself, like a delicious dessert. No, it was put off because I did not want to see it again. Not now, not ever, and, as I put it off, I sort-of hoped I might die before I had to get to it and, in death, I’d be spared the discomfort of it. But, given I’m only 40 and in very good health, death did not save me. And that, dear reader, is a lesson – death is its most-cruel when we want it, but are denied.
A History Lesson
I saw Million Dollar Baby in theaters in 2004. I was in law school then, and so saw it at the Celebration Cinema in Lansing – I used to love seeing movies there, and went by myself almost every week. Seeing movies there was almost magical, a welcome respite from the stress of law school, where I could go and turn my brain off for a couple hours and just enjoy myself. Free of that sensation, going there again isn’t exactly the same anymore, and it probably never will be.
Anyway, Million Dollar Baby was this lauded, year-end awards darling, and I was excited to take it in – I guess I’m just a whore for critical darlings and awards bait. So, off I went to enjoy a night away from law school, and sat down in the theater to the movie unspooling before me, and I just…
No, not just hated it – loathed it. To the extent that if I walked by a print of the film laying on the ground burning, I wouldn’t piss on it to put out the fire. The extent that if a legless, armless, orphan were laying in that fire and I couldn’t pull the orphan to safety and the only way to save him was to piss on the film, I guess that orphan would die. To the extent that if the film could cure cancer by simply watching it, I’d rather die.
Curiously, I didn’t loathe it for being all-over bad, as you would a late-model Adam Sandler vehicle, because it’s actually not all bad. Rather, half the movie is quite good – that being the first half, when we get a rousing underdog tale of a lady boxer who, through grit and hard work and determination, achieves her dreams.
It’s the second half, though, which trots out one of the biggest cinematic rug-pulls in the history of cinematic rug-pulls, which I loathe. And so hated was it, I have not seen it again. Not even once. Usually, with other movies I initially disliked, but which were cultural and/or critical events, I’d give them a second chance to win me over – maybe I’d see something I missed before. Sometimes, the revisit showed I was a bit harsh in my early assessment and maybe my initial response was tainted by high expectations. Most times, though, my initial reaction was the correct one – I still can’t get into The Matrix or The Sixth Sense, no matter how good anybody tells me they are.
But did I give Million Dollar Baby a second chance? What with its 91% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Hell no.
But now, for this Project, I submit again.
The Worm Turns
There is actually one exact moment when Million Dollar Baby stops being a great movie and starts being a shit movie – it’s not a gradual descent into shit that does it in; rather, it’s a specific, pinpointable moment from which everything flows. And the bitch is that, right up until that very moment, the movie is everything Rocky tried to be, but couldn’t pull off. A proper rags-to-riches tale. A true American dream. It had hope and uplift. Was gentle, and positive. Was funny. But after? All gone. In a literal blink of an eye it was no longer a marvelous, touching film about a girl making a fatherly connection and, together, have their dreams come true. In that one moment, the film truly goes completely to shit.
Watching again, I dreaded that moment I knew was coming, and the longer it took getting there, the deeper my pit of dread was. And the more I dreaded it, the more I could picture the moment. Even 12 years after the fact, that shot – that very shot – where it all turns to hell, was still there in my head, as if it never left. Still. Then, it happens, right at the 92-minute mark: the uplifting story of a girl-boxer dragging herself up from the bottom, all the way to the top, turns into a harrowing tale of bottom-feeding families and assisted-suicide. It’s there, at the 92-minute mark, when Swank’s character takes that punch to the back of the head, and falls and breaks her neck on the stool, you experience the sharpest rights turns in film history. Sharper than Janet Leigh being stabbed in Psycho. Sharper than Jaye Davidson’s penis in The Crying Game. Sharper that the true identity of the girl in Oldboy.
How sharp? Sharp enough that everything right with the movie before, spends the next 40 minutes going completely wrong. After that point it doesn’t matter how any of it ends, because by then nothing matters anymore.
But even if it doesn’t matter how it ends, I’ll tell you how it ends: At the 92-mnuite mark, Swank takes a dirty punch to the back of her head during a title fight she’s winning, falls and hits her head on a stool, breaking her neck irreparably. From that moment on, she spends the film in bed, paralyzed. First thing to happen her then? Her welfare-queen family shows up and tries to be a financial parasite on her. Then, she loses a leg to intense bedsores and infection. Then, just because you don’t think her misery can get worse, she bites through her tongue in an effort to kill herself, only to survive. Then, and only then, does she the pièce de résistance happen: she’s mercy-killed by her father-figure.
Yes, the film ends with forty minutes of Swank punished for reaching for her dreams! Forty minutes of helplessness and degradation, ending only when she dies! The only thing positive to say about that? Somebody showed restraint by not having her sexually abused while she was in the hospital.
Nevertheless, after that moment in the film – 92-minutes in – it no longer matters how good the film was before, because after that point everything good is gone. And so pernicious is the bad taste from the second half that it ruins the first half. In a lot of ways, it’s just like finding out Jeffrey Jones was into child porn. That the guy you loved as Principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day off wound up convicted of possessing child porn and had to register as a sex offender. And that forever after, no matter how beloved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is, it will always be tainted by Jeffrey Jones and the child porn.
And it’s not just that the second half overwhelms the first – it overwhelms everything. The performances? Generally good, until 40-minutes from the end when Swank breaks her neck. Thereafter? Shit. And nobody escapes. Where Jay Baruchel’s redneck, Texas accent was broad and comical before, now it’s just offensive. And Margo Martindale, as the very stereotype of a welfare-queen, should be so ashamed at committing such vulgarity to film that she gives back all her Emmys.
The closest one comes to escaping the hold of the last 40 minutes is Morgan Freeman – even in the most terrible movie, he still brings it. But even so, he’s as tainted as the rest.
If there’s one possible positive about any of it – and I mean any – it’s the score. The music is literally the only thing in the film that is right, from beginning to end. Ironically, it was composed by Eastwood.
Here It Is – My Sophie’s Choice
If I was to choose between watching every other film in this series again, excluding this one, OR, watch only this one, and could not relieve myself of either task by dying, or declining, or anything else, I’d watch the rest again. I’d watch every last one of them, no matter how mediocre they may be, including The Artist, Broadway Melody, The Lord of the Rings, Around the World in 80 Days, Gigi, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives and Cavalcade – I’d watch the whole damned lot of them just so I didn’t have to lay eyes on even so much as one frame of Million Dollar Baby.
Hey, Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?
Why yes, it was Riki Lindhome from the remake of Last House On The Left, Garfunkel and Oates and Another Period playing the part of Hilary Swank’s sister. You should treat yourself – find Garfunkel and Oates and watch the whole series – at 8 total episodes, it won’t take long.
All I Do Is Win, Win, Win
Michael Pena joins the ranks of actors to appear in consecutive Best Picture winners, playing a small part in both Best Picture 2004, Million Dollar Baby, and Best Picture 2005, Crash.
See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.
See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.
 It’s surprising how many of the ‘Best’ films are miserable to watch.
 Not entirely true – there will still be The Also-Rans Project.
 That’s where I really came to appreciate going to movies on my own.
 In those days, films in theaters were still shown using physical media.
 It’s a common-enough thing to happen to anybody. Bonnie and Clyde was widely-panned by critics on its initial release, who on a second viewing, later realized they were wrong.
 Never in the history of critical dissent have 9% of critics been so right about a universally-lauded movie.
 Bet you didn’t know that happened.