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.
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.