Mo chuisle, mo chuisle

Saturday, 12 February 2005 — 11:28am | Film, Full reviews

Predictability is an accusation of unpredictable relevance. When applied to literature, and film in particular given its inherent linearity and tempo, you often hear it used as a pejorative term. Apparently, stories are no fun if you can see the ending a mile away. Sometimes this is the case: the appeal of M. Night Shyamalan’s terribly overrated The Sixth Sense rests so completely on the wallop of its final revelation that for the perceptive types who pay attention to the clues before them, the movie is over as soon as they figure it out.

We like it when movies creep up behind us and smack us upside the head. We like it when gaps are filled in ways that surprise us. For recent examples, see Memento, Minority Report and A Very Long Engagement. For classic examples, see Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back. But we remember these movies for their crazy twists not because of the shock value that comes of each successive discovery, but because every twist makes the story all the more compelling. You can go into Kane knowing full well what Rosebud is, or Empire knowing that Vader is Luke’s father, as I’d wager almost everybody does nowadays given how those epiphanies have become a part of our cultural consciousness – and the curious thing is, the film is all the better for it.

But that does not give us adequate grounds to say that predictability is necessarily something to avoid; again, it’s not about shock value. If you take a look at film adaptations of popular material, the most difficult thing to get over the first time through is what you can’t predict: deviations from a story with which you are already familiar. Here, we seek the comfort of a story we already know.

My point is, you can’t open a can of plot twists, sprinkle it all over a story and call it compelling. Sometimes you get an otherwise masterful film like House of Flying Daggers where the plot twists feel like chores that have to be done in order to lay out all the necessary elements of understanding that make the character dynamics work. When everything is on the table, it all makes sense; but here, unpredictability is not the source of causation. The film becomes compelling; the twists do not make it compelling.

I argue above that it cannot be universally considered a fault for a story to let the audience outpace it within reason, and nowhere is that clearer than in Million Dollar Baby.

If you have watched a lot of movies, boxing or otherwise (and truth be told, even if you have not), you will anticipate every single thing that happens in this movie. You will know exactly who wins every fight, who lands every punch, and every outcome of every critical decision the characters make, well before it happens. Part of it may be because the boxing movie has become such a defining subgenre of American film that we are all well aware of its techniques – not just how the director and editor time the punches, but how they build up to them in little spurts of tension and release.

How is it, really, that a boxing scene makes you, an audience member, feel like you are “part of the action”? I would posit that it involves a lot more than how visceral it is, how close the camera gets, and how resonant the bone-crunching sound effects are. To be a part of the fight, to be part of the experience of the boxer, also involves a replication of a certain anticipatory spider-sense. And in Million Dollar Baby, this is what happens both in and out of the ring. The sense of anticipation extends to the overall narrative flow.

But if you can see everything coming, how does the film keep you hooked?

Well, there’s the rub. You can see everything coming, but as a passive filmgoer in a darkened theatre, you are absolutely powerless to do anything about it. And in much of the film – particularly its final act, which is very much about helplessness – you can see it heading somewhere very uncomfortable. Here’s a movie where everything follows the natural progression of events that you should and do expect. You cheer for Maggie as she delivers a first-round knockout match after match, because she does what you expect of her, and more. You cringe as you perceive just how much harm is about to be done to her, but have no way of warning her of anything.

At the same time, that makes Frankie, Clint Eastwood’s character, an easy elicitor of audience sympathy. He is very much the same familiar character that Eastwood has defined for himself in his self-directed period, the William Munny archetype of an aging senior haunted by regret and seeking repentance. Like boxing, you’ve seen him before. But there are moments in the film where, as the cutman in the corner, he is just as helpless as the audience. Great storytelling, or what?

It is difficult to pinpoint how Eastwood pulls off this anticipatory elegance. Maybe it comes from a natural technical aptitude for foreshadowing. Maybe it comes of experience. In any case, Million Dollar Baby presents a curious contradiction – everything about it feels so familiar, every element feels borrowed (which is mostly the case), but the story draws you in anyway.

Curious, too, that in spite of its apparent predictability, I have been reluctant to speak of it in terms that are anything less than vague. But go discover it for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

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