Monday, April 11, 2005

Sucker Punched

Although I dislike boxing intensely, and was afraid that the ending would be too much for me, I finally saw the movie, Million Dollar Baby. It is atrociously powerful. For some reason, I began to cry only during the credits; and when I started, I thought I might never stop. (This led to some awkwardness, as people nudged by me along the aisle on their way out, and I continued to shake with tears.)

The performances are pitch perfect. And if it is all a bit routine for Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, it marks a considerable advance for Hilary Swank, who I last saw in her guise as The Next Karate Kid. (Her fighting skills have suffered a deterioration, however, at least in ingenuity.)

The film came very close to being a masterpiece. What got in the way, for me, was a sense of rupture between its parts. It felt like two films welded together: a story of persistence and ambition, and one about pity and principle. The question is: why deal with this material together? what is the principle of unity?

I don't mean to suggest that a narrative can have only one point. Nor do I mean that one needs to justify telling a story simply because it is sad. The emotional impact of art can sometimes feel "unearned" – as in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies but not here. My thought is rather that Million Dollar Baby lacks the necessity of great art: it has no answer to the questions posed above.

What makes this frustrating is that the movie could have given reasons for itself. The rupture lies in the fact that Maggie's paralysis is not just a consequence of the risks involved in what she has chosen to do, but of injustice and bad luck. She is hit from behind, after the bell, by the 'Blue Bear', a German ex-prostitute-turned-boxer (!) who routinely breaks the rules. This is a terrible misfortune, but it is basically meaningless. The injury is adventitious; it doesn't follow from anything. The effect is to make the close of the film seem both arbitrary – an examination of euthanasia tacked on to a female Rocky – and bitterly unfair.

The injury should simply have happened in a bout: just one of those things. The unifying theme that the movie almost has is the risk of living hopefully, and the courage it demands – both of which point, with something like inevitability, to death. That's what makes me cry at the end of the film: I cannot imagine being brave enough to go gentle into that good night.


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