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Million Dollar Baby Destined to Elicit Praise

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2005 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
<i>Million Dollar Baby</i> Destined to Elicit Praise

DVD Release Date:  July 12, 2005
Theatrical Release Date:  January 21, 2005 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language)
Genre:   Drama
Run Time: 2 hrs. 17 min.
Director:   Clint Eastwood
Actors:   Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood

It's one of those films that's destined to elicit praise. Not only does Million Dollar Baby have an all-star cast, a talented director, sensitive cinematography and a good script, full of well-drawn characters and strong dialogue, but it also has a strong, pro-euthanasia message. That's a formula to please many critics - and infuriate many Christians.

Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) runs a rundown boxing gym in downtown L.A.  The gym's manager, Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former fighter, is Frankie's only friend, and the men communicate through curmudgeonly banter. Frankie's an excellent trainer, having coached several fighters to championship level. But each time, he loses them to other trainers, because he doesn't want them getting hurt in the ring - like Scrap, who lost an eye after one too many fights. As a result, Frankie's a lonely man, whose only daughter returns his weekly letters unread. So Frankie prays every night, on his knees, and attends mass, where he is full of questions. He also reads poetry and is teaching himself Gaelic, to fill up the empty spaces.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) has escaped from a dirt-poor, abusive family in the Ozarks to wait tables in L.A. In her spare time, she boxes at Frankie's gym and tries to persuade him to train her for matches. But Frankie doesn't train "girlies," because "girl fights are the latest freak shows." So Scrap takes pity on the girl, especially since she's paid 6 months of gym dues and works out, day after day. He gives her a few tips, which Frankie notices. Soon, Frankie has stepped in as well, even though Maggie is 31 and too old to be a real contender. But it isn't long before she's winning matches.

What happens isn't what you'd expect. In fact, what initially appears to be a rehashed Rocky plot takes a serious right turn about midway through the film, transforming audience's cheers into muted horror. It's a vivid portrayal of the risks of boxing - and what it means to live in a state of unimaginable physical and emotional agony, while coping with devastating isolation from those you know and love.

Eastwood has evolved into one of the top directors in Hollywood, and Million Dollar Baby may be his best effort yet. It's an odd film, in the way that it hypes you up then pulls you down, leaving you with a curious sense of incongruence. But that is more, I'm quite sure, a reflection of what we have come to expect from Hollywood - a formulaic plot - rather than what a film could and should be. That there is no romance in this film underscores the point. Additionally, in this case, it is also a very accurate rendering of life, which follows circuitous paths of tragedy and triumph.

Eastwood has made sure that his cinematography and lighting mirror the subtle, minimalist tone of the film, with dark grays and deep blues that creep in and around each frame and half shadows that reflect the more ambiguous scenes. He's also coaxed excellent performances from Swank, who will no doubt receive a Best Actress Oscar, and Freeman, who has a harder role, by its supporting nature, but who pulls it off with great aplomb. Swank never overacts, always hits her marks and has a plausible Southern accent - a rarity. She is compelling, lovable and, quite simply, mesmerizing. Freeman is just as convincing in his role, and it's a delight to watch this triumvirate interact, whether together or in pairs.

As an actor, Eastwood is also at his best, aided by a well-rounded character of infinite subtlety. Frankie may hide in the corners of life, but he's a thoughtful, prayerful man. At church, he hammers his impatient, surly priest (Brian F. O'Byrne) about theology. With infinite foreshadowing, the script has Frankie ask about those supernatural paradoxes that plague us all, like the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. That Frankie is a doubter, there is no doubt, but who isn't, at one time or another? And while he may enjoy bantering with the cantankerous priest, he appears to be a true seeker. That his priest does not provide answers is perhaps the tragedy that leads to the tragedy of the film. And the priest's insistence, in a latter scene, that Frankie is fast approaching the limits of God's grace, demonstrates exactly what bad theology does. It hurts people. And in this case, the damage is irreparable.

Million Dollar Baby makes a strong case for euthanasia. It presents an unambiguous situation where an innocent victim is completely paralyzed with no hope for recovery. That person also very much wants to die - at least in the moment - and even attempts suicide, which exacerbates the injuries. Because of the overwhelming pull of the situation, the euthanasia is presented as the only option for anyone with a shred of compassion.  Without a doubt, if there is a case to be made for euthanasia (despite the rarity of these clear-cut circumstances), this is it.

As Christians, however, we believe that God, not us, is the author and giver of life. We also believe that this God, who is not distant and unreachable, but personal and present, longs to give us hope and comfort in our darkest hours. A panacea, He is not. But a place of new beginnings, even in the most devastating of circumstances, He most definitely is - should we choose to embrace and trust Him. That process, euphemistically called the Christian Walk, is one of continually looking to ways (often, incredibly complex ways) that are higher than our ways, and that stretch our character to the limits. This is one of those situations.

The challenge, of course, is how we discuss such matters, and of not insisting upon superficial answers (which Christians are often perceived as offering, particularly when we have no answers). We live in a culture where life has little value, and where "quality of life" - an ambiguous term, if ever there was one - supercedes all else. Condemning without conversing, therefore, will accomplish only alienation. Instead, we must be slow to speak, slow to anger and quick to listen. After all, the motive of those who believe in euthanasia is compassion - a bridge of opportunity between the two sides in this complicated issue. 

Million Dollar Baby is not a movie for children, nor is it appropriate for even mature teens, who have yet to develop the emotional filters necessary to analyze a film with such a strong emotional pull.  Adults, on the other hand, will be able to glean truth in the edges of this narrative, particularly the desolation and increased isolation that ultimately befalls the characters, as a result of their choices. Hopefully, the film will also be used as an excellent discussion topic with those of differing opinions.
 

OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  People drink beer at boxing matches in several scenes; someone refers to another person getting drunk; two characters drink beer in one scene; reference to a mixed drink in another scene.
  • Language/Profanity:  Approximately four dozen obscenities (including one "f" and another mouthed "f") and a dozen profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Lewd reference to main character's breasts with sexual innuendo; several slang terms for anatomy; female character works out/fights in sports bra; male character refers to "naked women;" brief shots of cleavage and scantily-clothed women.
  • Violence:  Much boxing violence, including hitting, punching and various injuries (some legal, some not) resulting from fights (bloody nose, broken nose, dislocated nose); mentally-challenged character is viciously attacked in boxing ring after asking to fight; character resets a bloody, broken nose onscreen; character goes reeling to the floor in a match from an illegal punch, breaking neck on stool; hospital patient makes failed and bloody attempt at suicide; character kills another character by injecting solution into an IV.