An early scene in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby suggests that the film has more on its mind than the expertly crafted boxing-movie clichés that fill most of the first two acts. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a grizzled veteran boxing coach and owner of a gym, is leaving weekday Mass at St. Mark’s Church, where we learn he has been a daily communicant for decades, and is pestering the priest for clarification of the doctrine of the Trinity. With perhaps less piety or theological precision than pastoral insight, Fr. Horvak (Brian O’Byrne) impatiently brushes aside Frankie’s questions, rightly sensing that they are essentially a sort of dodge, and that what Frankie really needs is not catechism classes, but to make peace with God.
Later in the film, Frankie has another, much more serious discussion with Fr. Horvak, whose basic outlook is always more or less convergent with Church teaching, even if he doesn’t quite get the details right. Significantly, Fr. Horvak is not a bad guy — not an ideal priest, perhaps, but arguably something like the sort of pastor most likely to do Frankie some good. Million Dollar Baby may not ultimately endorse Fr. Horvak’s views — may ultimately subvert them in highly problematic, even insidious ways. But I think it takes them seriously.
By the film’s end, Frankie is faced with a choice that the priest says could lead to his damnation. The film makes the wrong choice seem right. But it leaves it an open question, I think, whether making that choice leads to redemption or damnation. Million Dollar Baby suggests, perhaps, that the right and most loving thing to do for someone else may entail one’s own damnation. This is very far from good way of looking at things. But it suggests a film that is less complacent, more thoughtful, less like smug propaganda than some of its detractors allege.
First, though, the boxing-movie clichés. These are Million Dollar Baby’s bread and butter, and while it doesn’t quite transcend the genre and its conventions, a polished script, canny direction, and top-notch performances make it fresh and entertaining if not quite totally compelling. For the first two-thirds the film reliably hits all the expected plot points, albeit with precision and panache.
The set-up: Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a driven but inexperienced and (at 31) older amateur boxer with aspirations of going pro approaches Frankie and asks him to train her. From that simple scenario the next hour or more practically writes itself. Of course Frankie must refuse to train Maggie (the unavoidable line "I don’t train girls" is followed by the memorable slogan "Girlie tough ain’t enough"). Of course Maggie’s determination and persistence will wear him down, not directly, but by first wearing down his partner, elderly ex-boxer Eddie "Scrap Irons" Dupres (Morgan Freeman, reprising his Eastwood sidekick role from Unforgiven), who will become her covert ally and advocate.
At first, Frankie will grudgingly agree to teach Maggie a few things without taking her on as a fighter; but this will be all the break Maggie needs, and Frankie will discover that he’s in for a penny, in for a pound. Maggie will quickly blossom into a talented fighter, and Frankie and Maggie’s relationship will eventually be something much more than that of a coach and a fighter.
The story gets added depth and conflict from the characters with unresolved issues from their pasts. Frankie is an able coach but an overly cautious manager, haunted by injuries to fighters he’s handled in the past and chary of letting his fighters challenge themselves against serious contenders. Maggie is driven in part by a need to escape the trailer-park hillbilly roots of her odious family. Even Scrap, though the least conflicted of the central characters, is quietly dissatisfied over the abrupt ending of his career after an eye injury. (One of these issues pays off in a crowd-pleasing moment and a one-liner that is only a number, but brings a smile to one’s face.)
Supporting characters are considerably less textured: Danger (Jay Baruchel), an inept boxer wanna-be who’s always hanging around the gym but lacks Maggie’s drive and talent, is a comic-relief caricature. Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker), a fearsome opponent whom we’re ominously told is an ex-prostitute and a notorious dirty fighter, is essentially a villain glaring balefully from under her hood like Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace while the soundtrack warns us to be afraid, be very afraid.
Eastwood brings the same grizzled toughness to Frankie that he does to all his roles, but stretches his acting muscles thanks to his relationship with Maggie, which eventually brings out something affectionate and vulnerable in him we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever. There’s nothing here to challenge Freeman in any way, and he settles easily into a well-worn role that he wears as comfortably and casually as the threadbare socks Frankie nags him about in one of their many scenes that suggest an old married couple rather than a pair of aging pugilists. (As the foregoing suggests, Frankie, not Scrap, comes off as the wife.)
But Swank owns the film, and it’s her earnest, fiery, gungo-ho performance that makes Million Dollar Baby as compelling as it is. One can’t help rooting for her, though this introduces a dramatic problem. Few people would want to spend a movie watching Hilary Swank getting brutalized in the ring, or alternatively brutalizing other women. To minimize this difficulty, the film cleverly turns Maggie into a one-punch wonder with a disconcerting habit of taking out her opponents in the first round, making it as clean and humane as possible. That’s not to say the film avoids wincing moments altogether — on the contrary — but on the whole Maggie’s career is not characterized by long, grueling battles or battered and bleeding faces, because who would want to see Hilary Swank go through that?
At this point, though, I’m dancing around the real issue, which has to do with the third-act twist that moves the film from its boxing story into more serious territory. Major spoiler warning: In what follows the film’s final act, including the climax and dénouement, are explored in detail, with no provision for readers who haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know the ending. Such readers are advised to stop reading now; the remainder of this review is only for those who have seen the film, know how it ends, or don’t mind being spoiled.
Maggie’s last fight against the Blue Bear comes to a devastating end when a cheap shot after the bell leaves her permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Frankie’s guilt is excruciating: At the bell he had placed Maggie’s stool in the ring, and wasn’t fast enough to move it when he saw her falling toward it. He even briefly lashes out at Scrap, telling him it’s his fault for encouraging him to take her on.
Maggie is now confined to a hospital bed with a ventilator and a feeding tube. Frankie intially refuses to face the permanence of her condition, and we see him on the phone shouting at surgeons and specialists who tell him they can’t fix her. (Oddly, we don’t see him on the phone shouting at boxing officials or district attorneys about the Blue Bear’s crippling sneak attack; it’s not surprising that the film has no further interest in her character, but I have a hard time believing that Frankie wouldn’t either.)
He stands by her in agony as she faces the crushing humiliation of facing her atrocious family and the lawyer they bring to her hospital bed. Though he will never coach her again, Frankie committed to stand by her in any way he can. He even starts to map out plans for her to resume a productive life — she can get a special breath-activated wheelchair, she can take classes, she can…
No. Maggie wants to die. She has tasted glory, she has lost everything, and she wants to die now with the sweet savor of victory still fresh on her lips. She doesn’t want this final defeat to grow to become the whole of her life, her days as a champion a brief, distant memory. And she wants Frankie to help her die.
Once again, Frankie refuses to do what Maggie asks, and once again her determination overcomes him. Eventually Maggie is sedated to prevent her from using what little mobility she has in efforts to take her own life. And one night Frankie slips into her hospital room, kisses her goodbye, disconnects her breathing tube, administers a lethal dose of adrenaline. In the shadows, mysteriously, Scrap bears silent witness to these events, and when Frankie never returns to the gym, having disappeared no one knows where, Scrap sets down these events in a letter to Frankie’s long-estranged daughter, letting her know what kind of man her father was.
While Frankie is agonizing over Maggie’s request, he returns to Fr. Horvak, who compassionately observes that Frankie obviously has things in his past he can’t forgive himself, and tells him plainly that, heaven and hell aside, if he goes through with Maggie’s request he will lose himself somewhere so deep he’ll never find himself again. As usual, the priest’s perspective isn’t quite right (not all daily communicants suffer from self-imposed guilt, and no matter what choices people make and how profoundly they are lost, while they live there is always the possibility that they will be found again). And it’s unfortunate that the priest chose to focus on Frankie and how he mustn’t do it, just as if it were all about him, rather than focusing on Maggie and why, despite her feelings, it would be wrong to kill her.
But the film isn’t about articulating arguments. If it comes to that, Maggie doesn’t exactly make the most felicitous possible case for euthanasia. She actually compares what she’s asking Frankie to do to her father putting down a dog. If Eastwood had wanted to debunk the priest’s morality, there was no need for subtlety; filmmakers today are free to caricature and demonize priests and religious figures in the most unnuanced way with absolute impunity, and critics and audiences will accept this as serious commentary (cf., e.g., The Magdalene Sisters).
Fr. Horvak seems meant to be a somewhat sympathetic figure. Still, it seems significant that there is no depth to his answers. The burden of his character seems to be this: The priests aren’t bad guys, but they only know how to mouth the party line, they don’t like questions, and you aren’t going to get any deeper answers from them, let alone any practical advice for living in the real world.
The ambiguous ending, with Frankie vanishing never to be seen again, may be too muted to be read as a triumphant vindication of Frankie’s act. What happens is a tragedy for both Maggie and Frankie, and it may be that in some sense what the priest warned comes true: Frankie has lost himself. But we are meant to understand that he has saved Maggie. He has sacrificed his conscience, maybe his soul, out of love for her, and the movie ultimately affirms this choice. For one thing, the silent witness borne by Scrap and the letter he writes to Frankie’s daughter are clearly meant as testimony on Frankie’s behalf. And anything that has the approval of Morgan Freeman — or of any good and wise black supporting character in any mainstream Hollywood movie, who so often function as enlightened mentor / guide type figures offering insight, illumination, perspective, etc. to the white protagonist — has the approval of the movie itself.
It also seems to me that, somehow, the very form and structure of the story is biased toward the act of euthanasia, inasmuch as the shape of the drama calls for a climax that somehow resolves the conflict in a decisive or definitive way. Once Maggie is paralyzed, as a human being she may have a range of options, but as a character in the Rocky-style movie we’ve been watching till now, she can only wind up two ways: Either there will be a miraculous recovery, or she will die. No other resolution will satisfy the dramatic tension created by her paralysis.
The film thus plays on the gap between what we might endorse in real life as moral persons and what we will accept as a satisfactory resolution of the storyline as moviegoers. If Maggie were our friend, our daughter, our student, we might want her to live, but watching her as a character in a film of this sort we wouldn’t find it satisfying if the film ended with her simply beginning the arduous process of Christopher Reeve lifelong therapy. Watching the film, I was aware of this dramatic effect working on me: Looking at Maggie in the bed on ventilation, I felt the difficulty of leaving her in essentially that same condition by the end of the film, even though in real life that’s the decision I would want her to make.
Million Dollar Baby is arguably too nuanced to dismiss as mere pro-euthanasia propaganda. But as a well-crafted and effective piece of popular art that takes a profoundly sympathetic and ultimately affirmative view of euthanasia, it is deeply troubling and potentially gravely harmful artifact of the culture of death. In a culture in which already quality of life is valued more than life itself and incapacitation is regarded as a fate worse than death, it may not be too much to say that people could die in part as a direct result of this film and others like it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.