Light on His Faith

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby doesn't go the distance

In one sense, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby–which was nominated for seven Oscars earlier this week–will be familiar to anyone who has seen Rocky or The Great White Hope or any number of boxing movies. There’s the ornery old trainer, this time played by Clint Eastwood; the run-down gym full of has-beens; and the perfectly toned fighter who jumps rope faster than is humanly possible. But as recognizable as all of this is, the movie is not simply rehashing a tired clich?. That may be because the contender in this film is a woman. Or it may be because, in the end, Million Dollar Baby is not a boxing movie at all.

Let me explain: Million Dollar Baby has been touted as one of the best films of the year, yet critics have largely refrained from addressing its central themes so as to not ruin the ending. While this is understandable, the final third of this movie is so troubling that it would be a shame if it went unaddressed, especially on Web sites like this that are interested in questions of faith. So to those who haven’t seen the movie: stop reading. This review will give away the ending.

This is the second consecutive movie from Eastwood that takes place in an Irish-Catholic milieu. The first, Mystic River, was about working-class Irish Americans in Boston. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River explored the death of a single young woman and its tragic effects on a close-knit community. In Million Dollar Baby, which is based on the short story “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole, Eastwood plays a trainer named Frankie Dunn who reluctantly agrees to coach Maggie Fitzgerald, a spunky young fighter played by Hillary Swank.

Dunn is a man of faith. He goes to Mass every day and bothers the earnest young priest with theological questions like, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Is that like Snap, Crackle, and Pop? Every night, he gets down on his knees and prays for a chance to coach a champ. This is all a little too pat, and I initially felt that Eastwood was more concerned the outward appearances of faith rather than the thing itself.

But that changes near the end of the film. After coaching Maggie through a series of first-round knockouts, Dunn arranges a fight with the champ. (Spoiler alert: this is where I give away the ending.) In her title fight, Maggie takes a blow to the head that sends her to the emergency room with serious spinal injuries that result in paralysis. Before long she is in a rehabilitation facility, hooked up to a respirator. At first, Maggie is resilient, assuring the devastated Frankie, who has come to care for her as a daughter, that she will be OK. But then, after a few months, Maggie decides she wants to die and asks Dunn to help her.

At this point Dunn’s faith is laid bare. Again and again, he refuses to help her. He goes to his priest, confused and overcome with grief. The priest tells him that he can’t do it, that it will kill him. To his credit, Eastwood takes Dunn’s beliefs seriously enough to portray his decision as a torturous one. Ultimately, Dunn concedes to Maggie’s wishes, sneaking into the hospital late at night to administer a lethal dose of adrenaline.

There are several problems with this ending. For one, throughout the movie Maggie is a tenacious competitor who refuses to let her poor background and her advanced age (she’s in her early thirties) stop her from getting a chance at the title. When she is paralyzed, it makes sense that she approaches her sickness with the same stubborn spirit. In a dramatic sense, it’s jarring when Maggie announces that she wants to die. Another problem is that death is presented as the only option for people with severe disabilities. For this reason, the film has been rightly criticized by advocates for the disabled.

On one level, I can see why Eastwood ended the film in this way; it is inarguably compelling. When Dunn helps Maggie die, it is almost like he is killing himself, too. But I still wonder why it had to come to such a tragic end. In his last two films, Eastwood has explored the sadness and misery that violence and death bring, but for someone so fascinated with the Catholic milieu, there is no exploration of the flipside of death, the light that comes after the darkness. His movies inevitably end in despair. I’m not asking for a corny or banal ending, just a moment of insight or a hint at possible redemption.

Martin Scorsese, a Catholic filmmaker, understands the Gospel arc, and that’s why at the end of Raging Bull, another boxing movie, Jake LaMotta stares into the mirror and repeats the speech from On the Waterfront: “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit?” Throughout the movie La Motta is portrayed as brutal animal but even he is allowed a glimpse of redemption. He sees, if only for a brief moment, who he is and what his life has been about. There is no such moment of light in Million Dollar Baby. Despite all the religious window dressing, Eastwood still doesn’t know what faith is all about.