“Some choices you don’t want to make,” says Scrap, the one-time heavyweight contender who narrates this film. Unfortunately, his boss, boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, is about to be presented with a real doozie.
It doesn’t appear that way at first. In fact, had I not been aware of all the controversy surrounding this film, I would have been disappointed that a brilliant director like Clint Eastwood had devoted one of his few remaining years to craft what was turning out to be a compelling but not quite innovative boxing movie. And then, right when the formula called for a “Rocky-like” character to start shouting “Adrian! Adrian!” with his/her eyes swollen shut and arms raised in victory, Eastwood pulled the old “one-two” and knocked us face-first onto the canvas.
When the world finally came back into focus, we found ourselves in a completely different moral landscape. Up to that point, the film had revolved around a traditional win/lose axis. Now we were in life and death territory, and it didn’t look like there was any escape—at least none that would cost Frankie anything less than his soul.
If it seems like I’m dancing around this film’s subject matter, that’s because I am. To do any differently would be to ruin the viewing experience for those who don’t yet know the story. At the same time, it is difficult to address the compelling questions this film raises without giving away the big plot twist. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, perhaps you should save the rest of this review for later. If you have seen the film and you’re eager to dig deeper into its themes, read on.
Let me start by saying that, sadly, the response of many Christian critics to this film has been as predictable as a thunderstorm in Saskatchewan. You could see it coming for miles, and it was all dark clouds and thunder. The fact that Eastwood dared to even broach the topic of euthanasia seems to have offended them as much as it offended the priest Frankie consults in this film. And, like the priest, rather than take a thoughtful, compassionate approach to the issue and the people involved, these reviewers simply remind us of the consequences—the rules, as it were—and then leave us to our own devices. However, I think these Christian reviewers are reading this movie all wrong. Even though Frankie turns compassionate executioner in the end, I do not see Million Dollar Baby as an endorsement of euthanasia by any stretch. In fact, I have yet to see a film that does such an effective job of raising an ethical question and then allowing us to form our own conclusions about it rather than hitting us over the head with an opinion. With this film, I do not believe Eastwood is saying assisted suicide is right. He is saying that it is a complicated subject that raises more questions than answers; that it looks a lot different when you are face-to-face with someone begging to die than it does on paper.
Some of the questions Million Dollar Baby raised in my mind are: Is there a pain so great that it negates the reason for living? Can the Angel of Mercy ever look like the Angel of Death? Can the face of the executioner ever be the face of God? Did Frankie deliver Maggie from hell or deliver her (and himself) to it? When do the hands of Man become the hands of God? When do they become the hands of the devil? And how can we know the difference? The priest in this film said that sometimes we need to step out of the way and let God do his work. But aren’t we God’s agents on earth? As Scrap says several times in this film, “In boxing, everything is backwards.” What about life? Perhaps instead of stepping out of the way in such circumstances God is waiting for us to step in and do his work. After all, God has given us the power of life and death over our fellow human beings. Isn’t it possible that there are some instances in which exercising this power is not a sin but a blessing? Many people think so when it comes to war, capital punishment, and abortion. Why not euthanasia?
Lest anyone think that Iam endorsing euthanasia in this review, I am not. I’m not advocating against it either though because, frankly, I don’t think I have answered the above questions well enough for myself yet. However, I do know that as I watched Frankie bend over and kiss Maggie one last time, he had no motive other than love in his heart. I also realized that no matter how miserable she was, there was no way I could have brought myself to reduce this beautiful, spirited girl to nothing but a cold lump of flesh. It just goes to show that when it comes to life and death choices like this, sometimes emotions can cloud your judgment. At other times, though, I think they make things perfectly clear.
Scrap is correct. No one wants to face a choice like this. But with the “right to die” movement growing in strength, I am thankful that Clint Eastwood used this film to give the question of assisted suicide the moral gravity and attention it deserves.