Million Dollar Baby -- is it immoral?
OK, Linda, since we're doing spoilers this week, I'm going to add something to my review of Million Dollar Baby, because the ending has become the subject of considerable controversy. It was a very brief review, mostly because most of what I could have said about it required ruining the movie for readers, and at that time, it was only showing in theaters here in Los Angeles and in New York. Not fair, I thought, so I was extremely brief.
Now that the film is out, so if a reader in, say, Lieper's Fork, TN is willing to drive in to Franklin or Nashville to see it (hi, Bro!) he or she can see it. And if he or she is too young to drive to the theater, then he or she is probably better off with the spoiler anyway. Consider yourself warned: this isn't just a spoiler, it's a retort to the people who say that this movie is immoral, and I'm going to spill ALL the beans in the process. If you don't want to know, stop reading now. If you have been suckered into thinking that it is a bad movie and morally bankrupt, be my guest and read on. And if you disagree with me, by all means, comment!
The first part of the film is a fairly predictable example of unlikely-but-improbably-talented boxer blooms under the tutelage of crusty ol' heartbroken trainer, and magic results: she's more of a boxer than she has any right to be, and he learns to take risks, for the first time in a very long time. The acting is quite beautiful, the characters are interesting and care-worthy, but as far as I was concerned, for the first two-thirds of the film, the subplots were a whole lot more interesting than the main story. Morgan Freeman's character, Scrap, gave the story its charge, because he knows things he ain't tellin', and from what we see of his actions, we realize he's a pretty smart guy.
Part of the brilliance of Million Dollar Baby is that there are only the faintest telegraphs of the plot twist, visible only in hindsight. The title doesn't signal, the trailers don't signal, and most elegantly of all, the film itself warns you but in such a way that the audience is lulled into thinking that this movie is merely Rocky On Estrogen.
In the Big Title Fight, the opponent fights dirty. Ho hum, right on schedule. And then it happens -- a sucker punch of pure nastiness ends the fight, landing Maggie in the hospital, a quadriplegic on a respirator.
Everything we know about Maggie, up to this point, boils down to a single fact: when that woman wants something, she will do what is necessary to get it, no matter how crazy or self-destructive it looks to an outsider. Frankie (Eastwood) is much more complicated: we know that he is a man who will carry a regret to his dying day, we know he is a man who loves stubbornly and deeply, a man who has already lost one daughter by failing her in some undisclosed fashion. We know he is a Catholic who attends daily Mass, who argues theology with his local priest, and who seeks out the help of that priest when Maggie tells him that she wants to stop living, wants it with the same focus that she wanted to be a boxer, before.
Frankie tries to fight Maggie about her wish, but she is indomitable. It is clear that she'll find a way to die, or make herself a living death, and that she demands that Frankie help her. And in the final scenes, after talking to his priest, after trying every available way out, Frankie goes to the hospital and trades his immortal soul for the love of this unexpected daughter.
And then, the movie pulls back. We know that Frankie's old life ends at the same moment that Maggie's does. He never returns to the gym, and instead we are shown the outside (not the inside) of a roadside diner he and Maggie fantasized about buying together and running together. Eastwood tells us, loud and clear, that the priest is right: Frankie will be haunted by Maggie -- by what might have been -- until his own physical death. The diner is what they passed up on their way to the championship ring. If he's in there at the end of the movie, he's in there without her.
Critics have argued that this is a movie promoting euthenasia, that it says that life without limbs is not life worth living. Here's why it isn't:
1. Maggie is not Christopher Reeves, despite the similarity of injuries. She is a very simple, utterly focussed woman who wanted one thing that she has already had: a boxing career. She believes that life is not worth living without her limbs: she talks about having laughed at an old crippled dog that her father finally put down out of mercy. She wants to die, and she will do the terrible few things she has the power to do to herself in order to die, and it will be awful.
2. Frankie is not Dr. Kevorkian, despite the similarity of methods. He denies this "daughter" the one thing she wants because he believes it is wrong. His career has become one of caring for her. He's clearly willing to go on doing that forever. He tries to interest her in making a life beyond the injury. The hillbilly wants nothing to do with that; she wants to die.
3. Maggie gets what she wants: she dies. Frankie gets what he knows he will get if he goes through with this: he loses his life, too. We have seen him, all along, suffering over the loss of one daughter, whom he failed in some way we will never know. Now we see him choose to give another daughter what she wants, at the cost of his soul.
This film is not a polemic for euthenasia: just the opposite. This is a deeply moral film, and the characters' decisions come straight and true out of their deepest being, and those decisions are on train tracks straight to hell.
People, it's called tragedy.