Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven — good or bad, it doesn’t matter

I never did write a review, as such, of Million Dollar Baby. However, I just finished writing an essay that looks at that film in the light of a couple of other recent Oscar winners that touch on euthanasia. (It’s not really a “spoiler” any more that Clint Eastwood’s film gets into that subject, is it?) And I really, really wish I had had more space to get into the parallels between Million Dollar Baby and Eastwood’s previous multiple Oscar winner, Unforgiven.

Thomas Hibbs makes the point that the problem with Eastwood’s newest film is not that it is specifically pro-euthanasia, per se — I don’t believe that it is, myself, although that probably depends on how closely you think we are supposed to identify with Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) assertion that it is a “sin” to let Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) live in her present condition — but rather, that it is broadly nihilistic. Hibbs, who has written a fantastic book on nihilism in popular culture, says the key question of this film (and Eastwood’s previous movie, Mystic River) is, “What if God does not exist?”

I think there is just a wee bit of wriggle room in Million Dollar Baby to permit a different reading of the film — in light of Frankie’s hectoring questions about the relationships between the persons of the Trinity, I think it is particularly significant that Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) comes across like an intercessor, especially in his final scenes — but I am inclined to agree with Hibbs, not least because Eastwood posed the exact same question, and gave, if anything, an even more nihilistic answer, in Unforgiven.

Like a lot of westerns, Unforgiven uses a fair bit of Christ imagery, but it puts these allusions to the service of a nihilistic theme, rather than a theme of salvation. Bill Munny (Eastwood) is a former bounty hunter who left his life of killing behind when he married a decent woman; however, he’s a widower now, and he needs money, so he takes a job killing two men who beat and cut a prostitute. At one point, Munny is beaten by the sheriff’s men, and he remains unconscious for three days; his awakening is witnessed by the prostitute, and at the film’s end, Munny proves that all the legends about him were true, as he takes out the sheriff and all his men in a shoot-out that is witnessed by a storyteller who will go on to spread Munny’s vindictive gospel.

But what is the point of all that symbolized death and resurrection? When Munny wakes up, he is haunted by a nightmare he had of his wife’s rotting, worm-covered corpse; whereas Jesus, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, descended into hell to defeat death, Munny witnesses the decomposition of the most heavenly person he has ever known. Hence, when Munny famously says that “we all have it coming,” he is not referring to meaningful judgment, as many Christian interpreters of the film have supposed, but rather, to the meaningless death that awaits us all — good or bad, it doesn’t matter, we’ll all still die.

Just as death was the central theme of Unforgiven, I think abandonment may be the central theme of Million Dollar Baby — Frankie is abandoned by his top fighter, Danger has been stuck in that city ever since his mother’s boyfriend abandoned him there, Frankie and Eddie were abandoned by a manager in Mississippi, Frankie himself abandoned Eddie by hitching a ride out of there (until his “conscience” got the better of him and he walked two miles back), Frankie has been abandoned by his daughter, Frankie feels abandoned by God, and finally, Frankie is abandoned by Maggie, after which he abandons Eddie for good — and that the point of the film may be that it doesn’t matter whether we have been good or bad to people, we will all still be abandoned.

Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but for me this stark duality is particularly clear in the way Frankie relates to the two women in his life. It seems that Frankie did something to his daughter that he needs to be “forgiven” for. And it seems that Frankie sees an opportunity to redeem himself by being good to Maggie and making her dreams come true. But just as Frankie was abandoned by his daughter for being bad to her, so too he is abandoned by Maggie for being good to her — Maggie specifically says that she cannot go on living in her quadriplegic state, hooked up to a respirator, precisely because she has had all her dreams come true and she doesn’t want that taken away from her.

So, in one film, it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, you will still end up as food for the worms. And in the other film, it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, you will still be abandoned by the people you love. What this says about Eastwood’s outlook on life — or about the Academy’s, which heaped praise on both films — I couldn’t say, but the parallels are interesting.

Interestingly, both films also probe the place of honour and shame in human relationships — for an extensive treatment of this theme in Unforgiven, see the chapter on that film in Robert Jewett’s Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame, while Million Dollar Baby asserts that the point of boxing is to gain respect for yourself and to take it away from others. Perhaps this has some bearing on that whole “dying with dignity” thing. But that’s another topic for another day.

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  • Peter, I greatly appreciate anyone who treats Eastwood’s work like art instead of as a political maneuver. His works seem to me to be much more about exploring tough questions than making definitive statements.

  • I agree, Jeff.

    Another thought just occurred to me. In Million Dollar Baby, I believe Maggie says she wants Frankie to kill her because she doesn’t want being an invalid to “take away” all the great experiences she has had — but in Unforgiven, Munny says, “Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” So in one film, killing a person takes everything away from a person (at least in Munny’s eyes), and in the other film, letting a person live takes everything away from a person (at least in Maggie’s eyes).

    Not sure what to make of that, but it may be something to consider when pondering Eastwood’s oeuvre.

  • Peter,

    I agree with you that these two films are intricately related. Although I would not argue with the position that they both come from a nihilistic place, I think the common thread is guilt. They both present a guilt-ridden man who is attempting to find redemption. What makes MDB so difficult is the diabolical way in which Frankie’s guilt combines with Maggies needs. I think this is often the case. Rather than dealing with our guilt with the One who can forgive our sins and cleanse us, we weave our guilt with other’s lives and both of us are harmed.