Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby's Big Questions

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Million Dollar Baby is a tale of mentorship in the new world of women’s boxing. But the film also works on a deeper, theological level, through its art asking ancient questions about God’s goodness and human suffering.

The female protagonist is Maggie Fitzgerald, a neophyte from the rural Midwest who has come to Eastwood’s California gym with raw talent and a last-chance dream. She is played by Hilary Swank. Her body shows the grace and the hardness of a middleweight boxer, and the fight scenes have an authenticity of real danger and gutsy thrill.

Eastwood himself contributes a balanced, witty performance as the reluctant trainer, Frankie Dunn, and the third actor in the ensemble, Morgan Freeman, once again embodies the kind of deep intelligence traditionally called wisdom as the washed-up partner, Eddie Dupris.

This is the point you shouldn’t read on if you wish to watch the movie without knowledge of an important plot twist.

Near the apex of her seemingly inevitable rise to the top, Maggie is suddenly, devastatingly injured -- in an instant transformed from a vibrant and beautiful athlete to a quadriplegic victim.

Dunn is likewise changed in that moment. Up to this point, his fatherhood and his mentorship have been more or less congruent. As a mentor, he seems to Dupris overly-protective, but obviously Dupris turns out to be wrong: Dunn found exactly the right timing for Maggie’s climb to the top of the game.

And fatherhood is, simply put, the art of finding the balance—and the right timing—between protectiveness and risk-encouraging. But once the young woman is physically destroyed, all this is over. The man can no longer help her: she is in the hands of the medical people, at the mercy of technicians, bureaucrats, scientists—people in white coats and suits and ties. Dunn hangs around in the wings, desperately looking for something to do besides holding her numb hand.

In a denouement beyond tear-jerking, she finds it for him. Remembering her father’s ultimate act of love—the mercy-killing of his beloved hound dog—she asks the same grace of Dunn. And we gradually realize that the story has found a deeper level still. The story involves what in classical theology was called theodicy —the perennial question of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering and evil —“to justify the ways of God to man,” as John Milton put it. Theology has to wrestle with it and make a stab at, a suggestion of, or at least a substitute for, an answer.

The story now recalls scenes early on, scenes that at first, while amusing and interesting in their way, seemed unrelated. Frankie is shown attending daily Mass at noon in some generic Catholic parish, and pestering the bemused priest with theology questions: “Explain the Trinity: is it like snap, crackle, and pop?” We learn gradually that this fellow is not only a veteran cut-man and gym-owner, but also a lover of literature as a hobby—a genuine amateur, “one who loves the art for its own sake”—who reads Yeats for fun and studies Gaelic.

But why the theological questions?

We finally find out. Frankie Dunn has wondered all along about God’s benevolence. He found deep solace in making Maggie a part of his life. But then he finds himself confronted with the dilemma of Abraham—he must sacrifice her—and the Gospel paradox. To fulfill the law of love, he has to break the commandment of God.

The ending—the girl dead, the man “disappearing,” as Freeman, the prophet-figure, puts it—may sound “downbeat,” to say the least. But it is not. There is an inescapable, unmistakable sense of peace, resolution, and rightness (though there is no suggestion of some happy ending, no deus-ex-machina , no wordy explanation of anything). Eastwood achieves this partly through his cinematic art: Freeman’s lovely, gentle voice over a few sparse, brightly-lit shots. But there is more to it than that.

It has been suggested that opponents of euthanasia may find the movie objectionable. Perhaps they will. But I doubt that proponents of mercy-killing will find much propaganda for their side in it, either.

Million Dollar Baby is not “about” mercy-killing, any more than it is “about” professional sports.

It is about relationships—first, between mentor and protégée. Second, between father and daughter. And third, at the deepest level, between human beings and God.

What, then, does the movie say? It does not say anything. Just as it does not take a “position” on mercy-killing -- no one could really argue that Eastwood “is in favor” of it, as the movie does not offer any kind of argument as to how a benevolent God could let this kind of thing happen. Million Dollar Baby does not make any statement. Theology has to try for the answer—the statement. This is the boundary between art and theology (as also between theology and spirituality). Art does not have to stammer out an answer. It has to ask the question.

Million Dollar Baby asks it beautifully, movingly, and gracefully. As does the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. And the Book of Job.

The Rev. Dr. Clair McPherson is a retreat leader, author, and parish priest. He has taught spirituality, history, and theology at colleges and seminaries for 30 years.

Posted on Trinity News, February 23, 2005