a commentary by Tony McRae

This commentary contains a spoiler.

First, there was FAHRENHEIT 9/11, followed by THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, each espoused by its devotees and vilified by its critics.  And now comes MILLION DOLLAR BABY with its seeming condoning of euthanasia.  Church groups and ethicists are again up in arms.  

I must confess that when “Million Dollar Baby” ended I wasn’t thinking about euthanasia at all.  What bothered me was the way the last half-hour or so of the movie was constructed and photographed.  I knew well before the ending what Frankie Dunn, the fight manager (play by Clint Eastwood), would do once his prize fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) became incapacitated.  I knew also that he would agonize over his decision, that he would go yet again to his priest and ask his advice, knowing full well what the priest would say and knowing he would heed only his own heart. 

The priest tells him he cannot do what he is contemplating because he will be so lost he will never find himself again.  Frankie feels he's already lost.

What drives Frankie Dunn—and the movie—is his guilt and how he will redeem himself.  We never know why Frankie feels such deep-seated guilt, only that it had something to do with his family.  Did he abuse and beat his wife?  Or his daughter?  Or both?  He has tried over the years to reach his daughter by mail only to have his letters returned unopened.  I wondered why he did not go to her, plead his case in person, ask for her forgiveness as he so often asks his God.  Whatever the reason, we see that he is a tortured man, so tortured that the only way to redeem himself is by a heroic act.  And just in case we somehow miss this inner agony, Eastwood lights each of his actors (himself included) in dramatic fashion, often using low-key lighting to emphasize especially that craggy  face etched with torment.

Initially we think Frankie’s heroic act is his decision to train and manage this girl boxer, to raise Maggie out of poverty, to turn her into a “million dollar baby.”  But Maggie is so much more than a boxer:  she is Frankie’s second chance.  No only can he train a champion, he can finally become the loving father; and most importantly, he may be able to assuage his own self-loathing.      

Maggie is terrific in the ring, and she loves Frankie dearly.   

We know it’s too good to last.  

In the championship fight Maggie is sucker punched, falls onto her spine, never able to stand or move or breathe on her own again.  Her situation is hopeless.  She wants to die, and she wants Frankie to see to it.  

The entire hospital sequence which ends in Maggie’s death is problematical for me, not because Maggie does die at Frankie’s hand but because Eastwood the director clears away the shadings and makes it happen relatively easily.   His handling of Maggie's hillbilly family is revealing.  The overdrawn contrast of the venially one-dimensional mother and the punk brother with Frankie Dunn's obvious love for Maggie is an misstep.  I sense director Eastwood's underestimating his audience's perceptions.   There's no way the astute Maggie will succumb to her mother's obvious greed, no way she will break the only human tie she has:  she and Frankie Dunn form a bond stronger than any blood tie.  She knows that Frankie will do what needs to be done.  Sure there's his initial refusal to acquiesce to Maggie's wish to die; he understands that if he fails her here, he fails himself.  He has no other choice. 

Late that night Frankie returns to the hospital.  As pictured by Eastwood it’s a nearly abandoned facility:  there is no one on duty watching this young woman on life support.  Frankie does the deed, and leaves unnoticed.   

I was appalled by the careless expediency of this sequence.   

By the end of the movie Eastwood has turned Frankie Dunn into one of those superheroes who is forced to kill to achieve a greater good.  Frankie proves capable of doing the unthinkable, and  to walk away unseen.  

If we are to believe the last minutes of “Million Dollar Baby” in which Morgan Freeman is writing a letter to Frankie's estranged daughter, her father is a flawed but great man, redeemed by his last act of sacrifice. The last scene shows Frankie Dunn in his newly purchased diner where he and Maggie had their last meal together.  He has finally found some peace and redemption.

But by this time I felt too manipulated to care.