Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
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Some people live lives in which their prayers are answered, their dreams fulfilled, their needs met, and their lives richly blessed. Others live lives of frustration, longing to hear God’s voice, carrying excruciating burdens and struggling to maintain their belief that their Creator cares … or that he exists at all.

Million Dollar Baby looks like a boxing movie, but at its heart, it is the story of a spiritually frustrated man. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a boxing trainer and “cut man.” When a fighter is wounded, Frankie steps into the ring, wipes up the blood, resets broken bones, and gauges how much more they can take.

He may be good at patching up others’ wounds, but Frankie can’t stop his own cuts from bleeding. At night, he kneels, weighed down by the burden of regrets, and asks God to heal his wounds. He attends daily mass, but instead of voicing his deepest conflict, he harasses an exasperated priest with dogmatic questions about the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. And while he spends his weeks counseling fighters about how to move their feet, his vocabulary becomes a kind of poetry describing his struggle to “protect himself” in fights he can’t win on his own. Ultimately, when Frankie and his partner Scrap-Iron (Morgan Freeman) talk about boxing, they’re talking about survival. “Everybody’s got a particular number of fights in ‘em,” says Scrap. “Nobody knows what that number is.”

There’s no American filmmaker more concerned with mortality that Clint Eastwood. He’s preoccupied with the consequences of violence and the forces that motivate men to fight. Here, he’s chosen the perfect actor to play the troubled trainer — himself. Those famous Westerns about the “pale rider” who dealt out death and judgment have made Eastwood’s visage one of Hollywood’s most familiar. As he gets older, he digs deeper into questions of conscience, and his wizened, tightly drawn face seems to become more grim and skull-like, as if morphing into a symbol of his chosen subject.

Million Dollar Baby is not a Western, but it’s just as primal and bleak as Unforgiven. This is Eastwood’s most accomplished film, and he finds in Paul Haggis’s screenplay (based on short stories by F.X. Toole) the richest, most complex character he’s ever played. It’s a familiar plotline — the grizzled old pro being convinced to take a gamble on a longshot. That longshot is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman from backwoods “Missourah” desperate to escape her “trailer-trash” past by chasing her dream of being a fighter. Frankie thinks girlfights are “the latest freakshow,” but the last fighter he trained betrayed him, and that’s only added to his feelings of failure as a father figure. There’s no suspense in whether he’ll take Maggie on; we know they’re a perfect match. What we don’t know is just how intimately we’ll get to know them, and how hard a road they’ll travel together.

Million Dollar Baby joins Sideways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Before Sunset among 2004′s finest examples of excellent writing. Haggis develops characters so real and endearing, you’ll wish you could invite them out for pie and coffee. Tom Stern—the film’s chief lighting technician—frames them in the simple, stark imagery of a bright white boxing ring in a dark arena, and the cold illumination of bare light bulbs in a training gym after hours. While the cinematography tells this bare-bones tale sharply and efficiently, and Eastwood’s understated guitar notes gently enhance the drama, it’s Freeman’s doleful, musical narration that gives Million Dollar Baby its haunting beauty. Great filmmakers show more than they tell, and thus it’s fair to ask if Million Dollar Baby might be earning too much praise as a film when most of its power lies in its narration. But in a year when movies heaped indulgent visual spectacle on undernourished scripts, it’s hard to complain about a movie with so much exquisite language.

Yet, while the narration gives the film a strong, simple skeleton, the actors put plenty of meat on those bones. They clearly appreciate the lines they’re given to speak. Eastwood appears more world-weary and vulnerable than ever before, as if cracking under the pressure of life’s beatings even as he teaches boxers how to fight, how to lose, and how to get up and fight again. As we watch him work, we catch hints of the failures he conceals behind clenched teeth. It’s his best performance.

Freeman, who created a beloved character in Unforgiven, proves a dependable partner again, serving as the play’s Greek chorus with a sense of humor as dry as a leather punching bag. Like Frankie the old-timer and Maggie the upstart, Scrap-Iron seems at first like a pulp fiction cliché. He’s a retired boxer whose career ended with a blow that cost him his right eye. But he and Eastwood engage in an easy, relaxed banter, exposing layer upon layer of their history, until they become fully developed personalities.

Swank stands apart from almost all celebrity actresses in that, while she’s clearly equipped to be a glamorous star, she avoids exploiting her appearance and focuses instead on inhabiting rough-edged, broken characters. She should — and probably will — win another Oscar for the way she transforms Maggie from a scrappy, ambitious, wounded girl into a ferocious, intense, ecstatically victorious fighter. (The bloody punishment she endures in the ring provoked one critic to say she’d been “Caviezel-ed.”) Instead of over-acting in the “big scenes” the way Sean Penn did in Mystic River, Swank instead makes the most subtle pauses in the action. When Maggie shares a shy smile with a young girl at gas station, the silent exchange speaks volumes.

Moments like this enable the film to transcend its genre clichés. Each scene resonates on several levels, revealing things about characters’ pasts, suggesting their possible futures, and reminding us of challenges we all face. Frankie’s letters to his estranged daughter return marked “Return to Sender,” paralleling his seemingly one-sided relationship with God. It becomes easier to understand why he’s willing to risk his reputation on a “girlie.” (After The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and In Good Company, this is the third recent film in which characters try to fill the missing pieces of their families by “adopting” others who fit the description. Do you think our culture is coping with regret for devaluing family relationships?)

Only a few moments feel false, flat, or manipulative. During the entrance of Maggie’s most formidable opponent (Lucia Rijker), the music sounds as though it’s going to bust out into a Darth Vader villain-motif. And when Maggie’s “hillbilly trash” family shows up to berate and exploit her, they’re as mean as the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

In fact, the film’s biggest weakness is the way Haggis’s script stacks the deck so unfairly against Maggie and her coach. Frankie’s family history is a black hole, and Maggie’s is a nightmare. Aside from Scrap-Iron, Frankie’s business colleagues are disloyal, exploitative, and opportunistic.

And the church? Eastwood cops out, portraying God’s agents on earth as utterly insufficient, suggesting that the path to God is a dead end. In his very first scene, Father Horvak (Brian O’Bryne) lashes out, labeling Frankie as a [insert harsh expletive here] pagan. He repeatedly discourages this doubting soul from attending mass. And in Frankie’s darkest hour, he offers not comfort, but a threat that God’s forgiveness might soon be out of reach. Eastwood clearly believes that the search for God is an honorable, even essential, pursuit. But by making God’s only representative a man who should seek spiritual counsel instead of offering it, he tells us, “You’re on your own in this life. Only fleeting glimmers of human kindness will help cushion life’s cruel punches until we lose the fight altogether.”

At the end, Frankie, Scrap, and Maggie make choices that will prod some viewers to grief and others to outrage. (One man at the screening I attended stood up and stormed out of the theatre in protest during the climactic exchange.) While I do not think the film glorifies the characters, it certainly goes too far in excusing them. We should object when Frankie and Maggie, driven by fear and despair, take matters into their own misguided hands; their decision is as rash as the crime committed by Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) in Mystic River. And yet, we can feel compassion for these fighters who have been “stripped down to the bare wood.” Like the naïve abortionist in Vera Drake, Frankie Dunn makes grave errors of judgment—he is acting out of kindness rather than malevolence, but his vision and compassion are too limited. And his decision does not earn him happiness. This is an honest portrayal of what the world looks like to those whose faith in a benevolent God fails. Million Dollar Baby may not be an inspiring movie, but it is at least honest about the consequences of giving up on God, and about our responsibility to be brave examples of love and grace to those who are suffering and afraid.

The film’s closing act does not justify the condemnation that the film is sure to receive from reactionaries. Just because a character commits a sin does not rob a story of all of its virtues, and even a misguided tale can create opportunity for rewarding discussion. The final actions of Frankie and Maggie, while understandable and in some ways appealing, demonstrate a failure of hope, a lack of faith, a collapse of courage, and the loss of an opportunity for God to work wonders. Frankie would say he just “stepped into the punch,” but I say he “throws in the towel.” A desirable end does not justify deplorable means.

Hopefully, the despair at the end of this story will coax viewers to choose a different path if they ever face similar trials.

Spoiler Alert: The paragraphs below give away the ending to Million Dollar Baby.

Let’s get specific.

The controversial resolution of Million Dollar Baby involves two characters who consent to the ending of another character’s life in order to release that character from suffering — in a word: euthanasia. Specifically, when Maggie suffers a literally paralyzing blow in the boxing ring, she eventually comes to believe that she doesn’t want to live the rest of her life as a quadriplegic, and she asks Frankie to pull the plug on the machine that’s keeping her alive. Frankie refuses at first, but several developments in the story eventually change his mind, and he grants Maggie’s wish.

Eastwood and his storytelling colleagues Toole and Haggis manipulate the events to try and win sympathy for their characters in this action. But there are plenty of details in the story that should show viewers the cost of such a decision, and that might even suggest there could have been a more meaningful and fruitful decision than the one made here.

As it plays out in the film, the act of euthanasia reduces the victim to the level of a dog, mentioned earlier in the film, that was put out of its misery. That seems, to this reviewer, to be a pessimistic and dispiriting decision for the characters, but does the film endorse their decision? I don’t think so. After choosing death, Frankie disappears from the story into the darkness, the very despair and doom that his priest prophesied earlier in the film. He gives up, he fails, and his future will be determined by the grace of God. I find it hard to come away from this film with any sense of victory or admiration for Frankie’s decision… only pity that he had to suffer such pressures, sadness that he and Maggie — the daughter he all but adopted — did not find their relationship worth living for. Million Dollar Baby is a tragedy, one in which we can feel compassion for its characters even as their moral fiber breaks under the pressure.

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