MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)

(a film review by Timothy J. Verret)

Some filmmakers make masterpieces. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has made a handful while some directors have made one-in-a-million, some not at all. While MILLION DOLLAR BABY might not be a masterpiece, it sure does come pretty close. I guess one would need to define, “what constitutes a film masterpiece?” My criteria is simple: “There is not one frame of this film that I would change.” I’ll tell you why this Clint Eastwood film has a frame, maybe two, I would change. The other criteria I go by for a film masterpiece is a simple plot. MILLION DOLLAR BABY has that: A female boxer rises in the ranks, then falls hardly and tragically, then grieves, then goes Home because of an Angel of Mercy. Simple, right? And yet the trick is to give the film viewer a simple plot but disguise it with much complexity. Give us a story and tell it as poetry. That is what Eastwood does with this film. We witness poetry on film. That’s high compliment from me!

We are not a stranger to a boxer story with heart. ROCKY, right? But MILLION DOLLAR BABY is a boxer story with heart but with tragedies intermixed. And the tragedy is not only Maggie Fitzgerald falling from grace as an up-and-coming boxer due to a “sports” injury. The tragedy in this film is also about characters who carry lots of scars before they even make it into the ring. Frankie is such a character. He is a boxing coach who has an estranged relationship with his daughter. We are never given the reasons for this, but we can see the scars on Frankie’s face and even with him clothed. Frankie’s friend in the gym, Eddie, has scars, too, also relatively unbeknownst to us, yet it is he who rips Frankie’s hardened scars by coaxing him to train Maggie. despite Frankie’s “I don’t train girls.” Maggie might be the only character who is relatively scar-less but for her trailer-park-white-trash family and maybe her drive and determination that, while admirable, might also be too much and too fast with too many scars possible.

I’m now going to talk about the “one-two punch” in the middle of MILLION DOLLAR BABY. If you have not seen this film, you might not want to read further; I don’t want to “one-two punch” you before you get punched yourself in viewing this film. I do, however, invite you to return here after this viewing. During a high-profile boxing match, Maggie is pushed by the opponent and lands, neck first, on a stool in the ring and, as a result, she is paralyzed from the neck down, needing a respirator to breathe 24/7. Maggie does not want to go on living like this (can you blame her?), so she asks Frankie to kill her. Frankie tells her, “please don’t ask me to do this.” Maggie later bites off her own tongue probably in an effort to bleed to death. Frankie starts to change his mind about Maggie’s request. He seeks counsel from a priest who basically tells Frankie that he knows he has many scars (the priest tells him, “no one comes to church every day for decades, Frankie, unless he has a lot of scars”), but the priest tells him this inevitable scar of taking another person’s life will be unforgivable in God’s Eyes. Wow! Who died and made you God, priest?

Frankie talks to Eddie about his indecision. Eddie tells him to let Maggie have that last line, “I did really good,” and then “let her go.” It seems that delivered line from Eddie makes the decision for Freddie, because Freddie goes to the hospital late one night, tells Maggie that he is going to take her off the respirator, and then he is going to give her the shot that will put her to asleep forever. But in and around these carefully-orchestrated steps, we see Freddie kiss Maggie on the lips before he begins and then we see Freddie kiss Maggie on the lips after he is finished. Freddie is an Angel of Mercy. It doesn’t matter whether we think Freddie did the right thing or the wrong thing. All that matters is that Freddie showed Maggie mercy. He played God, sure, but isn’t God merciful?

After this, Freddie leaves the hospital, we hear the hospitals door shut, and then we never see Freddie again. It’s after this that I would have liked to see frames changed….or, better said, added. What happened to Freddie? Where did he go? Did he reunite with his estranged daughter and, if so, how did that go? Did he take his own life from the possible guilt? But I must say I forgive Eastwood for these deletions, because Eastwood as an artist is very smart. He leaves it up to the viewers to answer these questions. Great artists do just that; they don’t spoon-feed us anything!

My parents love Clint Eastwood, whether he is shooting up the bad guys in a western or shooting up the bad guys on the streets. I’m not a fan of Eastwood, but I am a fan of his directing of MILLION DOLLAR BABY and I am a fan of his spectacularly-understated performance in this film. Hilary Swank as Maggie is exceptional; she won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress. When she tells Freddie not to let her forget that applause she had while in the ring, we are in tears; we don’t want her to forget that applause either. Morgan Freeman plays Eddie, another Oscar-winning performance for this film, and Eddie narrates the film and gives us so much of the underneath of these overwrought characters. Freeman has a Godly voice; his voice is the Darth Vader for emotionally dramatic films.

I have absolutely zero interest in talking about whether I support mercy-killing or not. And I don’t think MILLION DOLLAR BABY wants us to make a judgment call one way or the other. I think what the film wants us to know is that unless you are in the ring of life and you get knocked around and you suffer a tragedy and you don’t want to live with the outcome of this tragedy, you don’t get to have a voice about mercy-killing or not. You don’t get to have a voice because you have not worn Maggie’s boxing gloves or walked in Freddie’s or Eddie’s soft shoes. And this goes for you, too, priest; I love you for your Godly intentions, but you don’t get to have a voice on this one either.

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