Mystic River was both the noisiest and the quietest film in Eastwood’s career – suffused with an unprecedented, visceral torrent of speech and dialogue, it forced to him to refine his directorial silence as never before, until it reached an almost supernatural pitch. Never had he been more remote from one of his films and yet his voice had never been more distilled or refined either, if only by virtue of its absence. In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood translates that paradox into perhaps the finest performance of his career – a summative performance, really, for all the charismatic swansong of Gran Torino – if only because it is no longer possible to distinguish between his presence as a performer and his presence as a director, producer or musician. Instead, everything is subsumed into storytelling, plain and simple, as Eastwood draws on F.X. Toole’s short stories to tell the tale of boxing coach Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), his partner (Eddie Dupris) and his protégé Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Like Eastwood, Toole was something of a jack of all trades, basing his stories on his career as a boxing manager and cutman, and Eastwood takes his cues from that continuum between the ring and the page, the way stories emerge organically in the moments between rounds, the conversations before fights. Suffused with moments of deep storytelling, every utterance feels like an incipient story, just as every silence demands rapturous concentration and attention, as Eastwood shrouds his mise-en-scenes in the same oily darkness as Bird, the same sense that everything is poised too close to the spotlight for us to ever quite adjust to the dark. Except that this darkness is detached from the crowd, pocketed off to all the transitory, precarious spaces that the characters are trying to box their way out of, everything that just as ineradicably boxes them in. Perhaps that’s why it feels so timeless – although it’s nominally set in the present, it’s clear that the decay and desolation that drove the great boxing films of the 40s and 70s never really went away, never quite surrendered to the technocratic voids that lurk around the edges of everything here. Along with Mystic River, critics hailed it as a return to form after Eastwood’s genre films of the late 90s and early 00s, but its genius is that it is even less than a genre film – like Eastwood, Toole’s main fault is that he is too much of a craftsman, too much of a perfectionist, and their soul-searching becomes utterly indistinguishable as they’re drawn to distill the essence of their craft as never before, even as their audiences seem almost or already behind them.