Boxing is about more than two people punching each other. Million Dollar Baby (2005) makes the point early on that people watch it because they are attracted to violence. The film’s narrator and janitor of the gym where many fighters train, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), instead says that the sport is about restraint. Somebody can step into a ring full of rage, ready to take apart their opponent as quickly as possible. A properly trained boxer will face such a person and use their aggression against them. There are a lot of other great messages in the film along these lines, and I was right there with them all . . . until the end ruined everything.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) looks on as a fight unfolds featuring Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), opening Million Dollar Baby. Little is managed and trained by boxing lifer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), and it is Dunn who Fitzgerald is really there to see. After the match, she approaches Dunn and asks for his tutelage, and is flatly refused. He does not teach girls. Undeterred, she begins showing up at his gym to work on her moves. We also see that she is a struggling waitress who takes unfinished food off customers plates after they leave. Dupris’ narration also informs us that she came from a troubled rural background. The one thing she is most passionate about, though, is boxing. When she is not working, she is at the gym preparing. When Little leaves Dunn to pursue a shot at the world title, it leaves a vacancy in the ranks of Dunn’s pupils. Only Fitzgerald’s persistence gets him to relent. At first, he says it is only until she can find another manager. But seeing her performance during her first bout, Dunn becomes incensed with how she is being handled and steps in permanently. Under Dunn’s direction, Fitzgerald wins fight after fight, and usually via knocking out her opponents in the first round. This begins to garner more attention and wealth. She attempts to use some of her newfound fortune to help her impoverished family, but the reunion does not go as planned and they act resentful towards her. The attention gains her a shot and the title in her class. The woman she is up against, Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), has a reputation for fighting dirty. This becomes a problem when, with Fitzgerald on the verge of claiming victory, Billie sucker-punches Fitzgerald as they are being separated. Not expecting the blow, the punch knocks Fitzgerald senseless, and she as falls to the matt her neck lands on the stool in her corner. This awkward turn of events results in her breaking her neck and being paralyzed from there down to the rest of her body. Through the course of their interactions, Dunn had become a father figure to Fitzgerald, and he takes it upon himself to care for her. Once she is stabilized, he arranges to have her transported to a rehabilitation facility. He holds on to the hope that they can find a way to make her better, if not physically than emotionally. But after a visit from Fitzgerald’s family where they tried to get her to sign over her winnings to them, it leaves her in poor spirits. She next asks Dunn to help her to die, feeling like she has nothing left to offer. After wrestling with the decision for a while, he eventually sneaks into her room one night armed with a syringe full of adrenaline that he injects into her intravenous (IV) drip. This, along with the removal of her breathing tube, results in her death. Dunn then walks away from his life never to be heard from again, apparently.
I would like to talk more about the end of Million Dollar Baby, but before I do, I should reiterate that the overwhelming majority of the film is not about murder. More on that later. Up until that part, I thoroughly enjoyed how boxing was being framed as a metaphor for life. It spoke to my Faith to the core. A lot of what jived with Christianity was delivered by Dupris through narration, which, as it turns out, is all a part of a letter he had been writing to Dunn’s daughter explaining the events of the movie, and they come as he talks about boxing. One of the best lines comes when he claims that an aspect of a successful boxer is how they are able to continue to battle beyond their endurance. A fighter needs to find something within themselves to carry on when they are bruised and bleeding. It is something beyond “crude flesh,” to quote Yoda, and it is often referred to as heart. That is where God resides. The Bible contains multiple stories of people withstanding a vast array of trials all because God is at their side. He is somebody we should turn to in all our troubles. This is what Dunn does, for the most part, including when he is asked to help Fitzgerald die. Now, Dunn’s crime at the end has nothing to do with prayer, but it also should not take away from that act’s power. If you truly believe that you are alone, that there is no higher power to aid you in difficult times, then no amount of companionship (parent-child, husband-wife, siblings, friends, etc.) will ever help heal the deep wounds life brings our way.
And therein is what makes Million Dollar Baby so frustrating. The three principal characters, Fitzgerald, Dunn, and Dupris each have deep wounds that shape their actions. The end further complicates their healing. When Fitzgerald first tells Dunn that she wants him to kill her, he balks. To his credit, he takes this issue to his priest, Father Horvak (Brian F. O’Byrne). This is the second worst scene in the film. Early today I met with my spiritual director, a priest, and described what happens in this moment to him. In it, Father Horvak tells Dunn that if he goes through with helping Fitzgerald die, the old man will be “lost” forever. Ugh. That is roughly how my spiritual director reacted as well. Telling the faithful that a sin will result in some kind of eternal punishment is not sound teaching, and not something a good priest would tell somebody. Redemption is real, and possible in any circumstance. Make no mistake: what Dunn does to Fitzgerald is murder. We tend to couch such things in easier to stomach terms like “mercy.” Granted, Fitzgerald was in a state where she needed a machine to help her breath, and could not move her arms and legs. But Church teaching will tell you that person is still human, and therefore we have no right to destroy one of God’s precious creations. It also complicates the fighter’s mentality that Dunn drills into Fitzgerald, the desire to keep on struggling no matter the difficulties. There is another beautiful image he gives her of how he needed to break her down as a person to the point where the only voice she hears is his voice. What a great way of thinking about God! But, no, forget Dunn trying to come up with new things for her to be interested in, she just needs to die. Assisted suicide (again, I call it murder) should never be the option for a person in such a state, and my Faith supports this position. A miraculous healing could occur, some new medicine might become available, or you could inspire others in similar states. Why are we so hasty as a society to kill people who we believe are nothing but a burden? Historically speaking, such thinking has not turned out well. In sum, I was thoroughly disappointed with the way this film ended.
If Million Dollar Baby could have ended about fifteen minutes earlier, it would have been great. They could have panned out from a scene with Dunn reading Gaelic poetry to Fitzgerald at her bedside, faded to black, and rolled the credits. Instead, we had to get some flawed message that Dunn does a kindness to somebody for which life is now supposedly pointless. I am sorry, but that is not an idea this Catholic can support.