“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” In the 19th century, both the Christian Dostoevsky and the anti-Christian Nietzsche affirmed this statement. In the weeks leading up to Sunday night’s Oscar Awards, a battle has simmered over Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which nearly swept the major awards, receiving Oscars for supporting actor (Morgan Freeman), actress (Hilary Swank), director (Eastwood), and picture. Eastwood has responded to allegations that the film promotes a right-to-die agenda, by distinguishing between propaganda and fiction, the latter of which involves a “What if?,” the imaginative playing out of certain possibilities of character and plot. Beneath its surface, Million Dollar Baby, like Eastwood’s previous film, Mystic River, entertains the question, “What if God does not exist?”
In both films, the human condition is a barren landscape, a place dominated by amoral forces and marked by brutal indifference to human longing and suffering. Indeed, human life is, as Hobbes once bluntly described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although it has a more traditional plot, Million Dollar Baby is as nihilistic as any of the films of Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch.
A number of critics have noted, boxing functions in Baby as a metaphor for human life, but what does the metaphor teach us? As the narrator puts it, everything in boxing is backwards. So too with human life: Beneath the surface of our conventional moral and religious codes, what we discern is pure chaos, an amoral universe. Who wins in this world? The victor is the fighter who is untroubled by the effete demands of conscience and who is willing to break any rule to destroy an opponent and thus insure her own victory. The same is true, by the way, in the dramatically superior, Mystic River.
Eastwood has consistently repudiated political interpretations of his films. Liberals lambasted his Dirty Harry films as fascist. Now, some conservatives and disability groups are assailing Baby for its purported promotion of a right-to-die agenda. Baby certainly does not promote euthanasia in the way, say, Cider House Rules giddily promotes abortion. Unlike Cider House Rules, with its schmaltzy, sentimental, if nihilistic and incoherent, advocacy of abortion, Baby is not set up as a debate over the right to die; assisted suicide makes as much, or as little, sense as anything else in a world where God is utterly silent, where no clear morality whatsoever can be discerned, and where even the best intentions backfire, bringing about precisely the harm they sought to thwart.
Religion, specifically Catholicism, figures in the lives of the main characters in both Mystic River and Baby. In Mystic River, the molestation of a child haunts the action of film; clues indicate that the molester is a Catholic, most likely a priest. Is Mystic River anti-Catholic? Perhaps but that case would be hard to make in a world populated by what one character calls “vampires,” human beings without souls who prey upon the innocent. In Million Dollar Baby, Frankie (Eastwood as the aging boxing coach) attends daily Mass and has ongoing discussions with his parish priest. He berates the priest with puzzles about the doctrines of the trinity and the Immaculate Conception. But Frankie has no genuine interest in the answers to the questions. They are, as the priest suspects, trivia questions designed to trump and frustrate him.
Frankie’s faith is a husk, void of vitality. In fact, even the priest’s understanding of faith is shallow, a perversion of the church as a community of sinners redeemed by divine grace into a meeting place for the hopelessly unforgiven. The priest himself articulates the distortion, when he tells Frankie that the only individuals who attend Mass as often as Frankie does are those “who can’t forgive themselves.” That would make priests, who celebrate Mass daily, precisely what Nietzsche thought they were, masochists consumed by self-hatred.
Frankie will eventually leave his incoherent and morbid theology behind; but when he does so, it is not at all clear that his act is heroic. The priest’s interpretation is equally valid–Frankie is irrevocably lost. What precisely has been lost or why we should care about the outcome is never convincingly portrayed in the film.
Indeed, the entire film is infected with a brooding and inexplicable mood of guilt, with a pervasive hopelessness. Boxing, we are told, is about “the magic of risking everything for a dream nobody sees.” The reason we can’t see it in this film is that none of the characters really believe in the dream; indeed, the only character who harbors such dreams is a young boy, facetiously named “Danger,” who suffers from a mental disability. The inevitability of devastating failure permeates the film.
Million Dollar Baby is an offensive film, not so much because of any subversive political agenda, but because of the way it wallows in the physical and spiritual degradation of its main characters, especially in its final, prolix segments. Whereas the emotionally chilling ending of Mystic River is integral to the resolution of the plot, Baby’s final scenes are gratuitous. (Absent the sexual perversion, the ending here induces the same sort of stomach-churning repulsion as does the finale of Requiem for a Dream.) Far from entering a debate over controversial moral issues, Eastwood has nothing to say in the end. Instead, he drags us through one humiliating scene after another, taking us ever more deeply and explicitly into a nihilistic hell, in this case, the imaginative world that results from the film’s unstated, “What if?”
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.