Both these films were directed by Clint Eastwood. Mystic River was nominated for Best Picture in 2002. Million Dollar Baby took home the trophy in 2003. What else do they have in common? Their absurd endings largely ruin both films. Spoilers follow. Read on if you dare. Oh, and as with most films I didn't particularly enjoy, I've only seen these once each, so if I get some of the details wrong, let me know.
Of the two films, I prefer Mystic River. It's got incredible performances from Sean Penn as an ex-con consumed with rage over the violent death of his daughter, Tim Robbins as his friend who just might have committed the murder, and Kevin Bacon as their cop buddy stuck in the middle.
The film builds toward an emotionally wrenching climax when Penn confronts Robbins on the banks of Mystic River and forces him to confess to his daughter's killing at the barrel of a gun. He stabs and then shoots his lifelong friend; it's devastating.
That is, until you find out that Robbins didn't do it. It was the brother of the girl's boyfriend. Why did he shoot her in cold blood, drag her body away, and hide it? I have no idea. The kid was just barely in the film. He had no motive, no character development, no role to play other than just appearing in a scene or two. There was nothing that made you say, "Of course, I should've known it all along!" Basically, it's more tragic if Robbins didn't actually kill Penn's daughter, so it's pinned on a fringe character with no back story.
I felt manipulated. If you want a twisty, crushing ending, fine. Set it up properly with a plot line that makes sense. But the film's central focus (Who did it?) can't come down to, "Oh, I don't know. How about the brother of the boyfriend with the gun he stole from the liquor store their family owns?" Just lazy, sloppy storytelling. Perhaps the book the movie's based on gives a more detailed sketch of this character, but I'm going with what I saw onscreen.
Million Dollar Baby makes me even more upset. Much like Mystic, I was enjoying myself through much of it. It had all the right elements to enter the echelon of great sports movies: A young underdog upstart (Hilary Swank) who persuades a crusty, jaded trainer (Clint Eastwood) to give her a shot through much sweat and perseverance. As an added bonus, Morgan Freeman does what he does best: Narrating the action while occasionally showing some young pups what's up in the ring.
Then it all goes titanically wrong. Maggie earns an undercard championship bout in Las Vegas. During the fight she appears to be winning, despite cheap shots worthy of the WWE. Seriously, the Drago/Balboa bout in Rocky IV is more believable.
Then comes the piece de resistance. The bell rings, the ref waves his hands to indicate the round's over, and Swank is walking back to her corner. After getting herself off the ropes, her nemesis rushes her. Swank looks back, and her opponent unleashes a mammoth roundhouse flush to Swank's face. Again, the round has been over for several seconds. Swank is stunned and collapses toward her corner, where for some reason, the corner guy has set the stool out on its side, and, as Eastwood tries frantically to move the stool, her head lands awkwardly on a corner, snapping her neck and paralyzing her. Oh, and I'm pretty sure the cheater boxer wins the fight and doesn't get charged with anything, but don't quote me on that.
It's meant to be shocking and tragic. It's not. It's hilariously absurd, at least for anyone who possesses even one iota of boxing knowledge. It's a completely ludicrous turn of events, unworthy of a film that won Best Picture, for chrissakes.
The last 30 minutes become a completely different movie. Swank's cartoon-evil white trash family visit, attempting to get at her women's boxing fortune. She tries to kill herself by chewing on her own tongue, hoping the blood will drown her and end her suffering. She pleads with Eastwood to kill her, and he eventually does, thus ending her suffering and mine for sitting through this sham of an Oscar pick.
Nolanometer Final Grades:
Mystic River: B
Million Dollar Baby: C