A thoroughly surprising plot twist in this film will be openly discussed in this review. If you have not yet seen the film, and still hold out hope of seeing it without knowing about this turn in its story, first I’d like to ask, What have you been talking about for the last four months? Second, I suggest you put the review away until after you’ve seen the film.
Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood’s latest movie and the 2004 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, has stirred controversy in two ways. First, reviewers have complained that those who advertised the film pulled a “bait and switch” on the audience. Advertising the movie as if it were a female Rocky about a gritty, female boxer’s overcoming of adversity to rise (or maybe not) to the top, instead the movie focuses its emotional power on major ethical questions arising from a startling plot twist about two-thirds of the way through the film. The controversy was so widespread that Michael Medved, perhaps the chief recipient of the criticism of those who in turn criticized Baby in this vein, actually had to write a lengthy column in the Wall Street Journal, clarifying his position and defending himself against his attackers.
Secondly, many condemned the film for the view it purportedly presented in support of assisted suicide. Frankie Dunn, an over-the-hill trainer played by Eastwood, reluctantly takes on the job of helping Maggie Fitzgerald, portrayed by Hillary Swank in a deserving Academy Award winning performance, an older female boxer whose life has never allowed her to get the coaching that would match the heart and physical ability she has for the game. Much of the film builds the rapport between the two, thoroughly depicting Dunn’s reluctance and Fitzgerald’s desire as the classic irresistible force meeting the unmovable object, and subtly creating one of the most memorable non-father and non-daughter father/daughter relationships in film history. All this prepares us for the heart-wrenching event at the end of the movie when Frankie sneaks into the hospital at night and injects Maggie with adrenaline, ending her life. This prompted protests by everyone from the leading disabilities rights organizations in the country to the woman upon whose similar rise to prominence and tragic end to her career the story was based, though, obviously with a different conclusion.
Both these protests have some merit; most people I have encountered who knew nothing about the film but the advertising they encountered, felt that they saw a movie that was very different from the one they thought they were going to see. Similarly, though Eastwood, when confronted with the accusation that the film promotes mercy killing, has stated publicly that he just wanted to tell a good story, and that he is not really teaching a moral directly in Million Dollar Baby, it is difficult to believe audience members are not being encouraged to think very sympathetically of Frankie and the choice he makes. A character’s ability to make us get inside his shoes, and feel that he is real, is exactly what good filmmaking is all about. Anything that character does is thus a paradigm for us to consider, and the more attractive the character is, the more we will be drawn to agree with his actions. To look at it another way, nothing in the film remotely encourages the viewer to decide to continue life in the circumstances presented at the end of Baby; everything promotes the view that it is legitimate to take life when it’s “not worth living.” The “mercy killing” at the end of Baby seems a tragic, but necessary, good.
A third aspect of the film, though, is what Christians ought to be most concerned about, and there were no protests about it. Million Dollar Baby assumes, and its controversial relationship and resolution is based upon, the legitimacy of making something other than God Himself our ultimate basis for living. No Christian should expect anything different from those outside the faith, but Baby not only assumes this, the film emphasizes it. The world calls this having a sense of purpose; Christianity calls it idolatry.
Frankie Dunn’s ultimate joy is the daughter he has now found, but the movie really fails ethically when it portrays Maggie as giving up on life because she can no longer box. From having a worth of $1M to having a worth of nothing, Maggie sees herself as useless to any and everyone, and begs to die. It is true that her efforts to love her despicable, white-trash family are shockingly rejected; she has only enabled them to become even more evil as the film goes on.
It is true that the crowds will no longer get the pleasure of watching Maggie triumph in the ring, and her Irish fans won’t be able to root for her with cheers of the pet name, bestowed on her by Eastwood, “Mo Cuishle,” which we find out later is Gaelic shorthand for, “My darling, my blood.”
It is even true that Eastwood, who has become the father she hasn’t had for years, will now be burdened with caring for her, and she knows that. He will not get his title fighter, not get the pleasure of managing her through the subtleties of however many years she would have had left in the ring.
But most of all, she makes it clear that she has lost her worth to herself, that, as she puts it early in the film, “the only thing she ever felt good doing,” is now denied her. She makes a long list of all the joys she has experienced that she never thought possible: being in magazines, traveling the world, staying in fancy hotels, getting a title shot. Now, she says, all that is slowly draining away from her, as she has her leg amputated, and any hope of recovery departs. Maggie does not want those memories to fade, so she begs Frankie to let her go out while they are still fresh in her mind, and he accedes to her wishes.
As Christians, when we try to wrestle with what we would have done in this situation, we recognize first that this is not an unrealistic question. The Terri Schiavo case, which remarkably captured so much of our attention just at the moment this film was playing and garnering its awards, shows us that. Birth and death in an age of genetic engineering will only increasingly become life events that we have more and more responsibility for. Just a few days ago, I spoke with a friend in NYC who knows a young woman her age who has two children. My friend remarked to her that her two children, two years apart in age, looked amazingly alike, almost as if they were twins. The woman replied: “That’s because they are.” The woman and her husband had frozen the fertilized eggs, and implanted them two years apart resulting in twins who are two years apart in age. The kinds of decisions we face in a world in which such things are possible are innumerable.
So what is a million dollar baby worth? The Scripture is quite clear. At the very beginning of the Bible, we are told that humans, apart from all the other animals, are created in God’s image. This puts us on the side of all other created things as opposed to God who is not created, but on the side of God, as opposed to all other created things in that we alone bear his image. In this space we cannot go into the very thorny question of what the image of God actually consists of, but we do know this: it bestows on every man, woman and child who exists today on the face of the planet—and whoever existed, or ever will exist for that matter—a worth that is infinite in value. We are immeasurably valuable, no matter what our sex, race, color or even creed, and that includes our physical state, as well.
But the fact that we are of worth does not answer the question of the worth of our continued existence on this earth, i.e. the worth of our “life.” Who determines when that worthy life should end? How do we determine it?
The Scripture teaches that we should fight to preserve life at all times, but that life is not simply continuing to make the heart pump blood. Neither is it, however, whatever we would define for ourselves as “normal.” The movie gets it wrong in portraying Maggie as not having anything left to live for. Her life has changed, but it is not over. One can come up with a million ways in which she could have led a worthy life; Frankie Dunn even investigates some of those for her.
She has decided that her own life is only worthy if it is lived in the “natural” mode within which she was able to box, and that is where Christians should weep at the ideas this movie assumes. We are not our own, we are bought with a price, as St. Paul puts it, and so we do not have the right to determine our own worth. That right is God’s alone. Maggie worships an idol and when that idol is taken away, life is not worth living. Ironically, both Maggie and Frankie seem to feel that gods outside themselves are more important than they are, but they have the wrong gods.
Baby also presents a relentlessly hopeless view that we have no one else to help us, that we are trapped in this vale of tears, powerless and alone. At the end, Scrap, Frankie’s friend played by Morgan Freeman, says he never saw Frankie again, but that he guessed he was “probably somewhere between nowhere and good-bye.” We see Frankie sitting in the diner that he had wanted to buy some day, drinking his coffee and eating his lemon pie. No hope is coming, and none is expected. Frankie is shattered, and that is the end of it, as it is of the film.
This bleak conclusion is bad enough, but what is worse is that Eastwood makes a strong point of portraying the church as actually having an answer for Frankie’s dilemma—but having none of the grace to help him understand it, implement it, or transfer it to Maggie. The priest, a prominent minor character in the movie, is a stereotype of the unfeeling, doctrinally correct, smiley-faced jerk that too many people outside the church project onto the priesthood. The church—and with it Christianity, and ultimately, Christ—doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand, and actively refuses to understand, Frankie and his dilemma. It is one of the starkest condemnations of the irrelevance of the church in films of recent memory, and it hurts to see it because, for one thing, it is too often true of Christians, but, for another, it flows from a lack of understanding who Jesus is as the very source of Hope.
Like many award-winning films last year, Million Dollar Baby demonstrates an excellence in filmmaking that is stunning. Its use of lighting, for instance, is as beautiful and true as that of any color film in memory. One only wishes its ideas were of the same stature.