Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby has won a basketful of Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. If they gave one for Best Kept Secret, it might win that as well. There’s a twist in the plot of Million Dollar Baby. It’s not a whiplash turn, like that Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. It’s more of an unexpected plot morph that turns it from one kind of movie into another.
Movie critics know, and if they don’t they learn the hard way, that readers don’t want to be told about plot twists. So reviews of Million Dollar Baby have been coy about what happens. Reviewers have been saying that the movie “takes a surprising turn” or “it isn’t what you think it is” or “it raises unexpected questions.”
The problem is that those unexpected questions touch on some very serious issues: disability, suicide, the loss of fame, depression. If you can’t discuss the ending, you can’t discuss these issues, or whether Eastwood handles them well. Critical self-censorship means the film’s assumptions aren’t getting the kind of open debate they deserve.
So I’m going to tell you the plot twist, and if you still don’t want to know, stop reading right now. The first two thirds of the movie is a quiet, gently melancholy character study set in the world of professional boxing. A young woman, Maggie (Hilary Swank), wants to be a boxer, and asks Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Maggie comes from a hardscrabble background and has always felt like “trash,” she says. Boxing is the only thing that makes her feel good. She turns out to be a gifted boxer and is on the way to a world championship. So far, nothing too surprising.
Then a ruthless opponent lands a surprise punch between rounds, and Maggie falls, smacking her head brutally against the stool placed in her corner. She wakes up paralyzed from the neck down.
Frankie begins to make arrangements for her new life. He brings her a catalog for the community college, and says he’s found a kind of wheelchair she can steer by blowing into a tube. But Maggie asks Frankie instead to help her commit suicide.
Why? She doesn’t say she’s in intractable pain, and doesn’t look it either; this is less accurate, because such a condition could well be a sign of culpably bad nursing care. She does suffer from bedsores, to the point that a leg must be amputated; this is inaccurate, because such a condition would be a sign of culpably bad nursing care. She says she needs Frankie’s help to die, but this is also inaccurate, since anyone dependent on a ventilator can legally ask that it be removed.
Maggie doesn’t seem distraught over being an athlete who is now disabled. She doesn’t seem depressed at all, actually. That’s not the reason she wants to die. Here’s what she tells Frankie: “I can’t be like this, boss, not after what I’ve done. I’ve seen the world. People chanted my name. I was in magazines.”
In other words, she can’t bear to be a has-been. By this standard, anyone who comes to the end of their 15 minutes of fame is justified in seeking suicide. Truth is, a real-life Maggie would be far from unknown. A beautiful, feisty young woman is tragically paralyzed in a boxing-ring accident? She’d be another Christopher Reeve.
When a new paraplegic is distraught and suicidal, it should be treated like any other depression, rather than a warrant for suicide. The people who love her should try to help her envision a different kind of future, one that’s very different from what she expected, but still valuable. They have the task of persuading her not to have the ventilator removed. That’s what Frankie was doing, with his college catalog and offer of a wheelchair.
But when Frankie eventually steals in one midnight, unplugs Maggie’s ventilator, and gives her a lethal injection (without triggering alarms in the nursing station?), we’re left with the impression that he did the loving thing. Eastwood claims that it’s only a movie: “I don’t advocate. I’m playing a part.” Yet the film doesn’t leave room for much ambivalence.
The film raises a theme that it doesn’t explore sufficiently: respect. The opening voice-over tells us that boxing is not about violence; it’s not like people who try to see bloody bodies at a car wreck. “Boxing is about respect: getting it for yourself, and taking it away from the other guy.”
Well, that gives you plenty to think about. Morbid curiosity about injured bodies seems to me less troubling–and less inherently about “violence”–than the idea that a good way to get respect is to punch other people. Or that there is only so much respect in the world, and to get some you have to take it away from someone else. That’s the reasoning behind a lot of killings, from inner-city drive-bys to 19th century duels to most of the wars you can think of. Yes, if Maggie’s only source of respect is punching another woman in the face, she’s not going to be able to do that any more. Using her inner mettle to put a new life together, going to college, becoming a spokesperson for the disabled, could have opened a new world of respect for her. Million Dollar Baby could have addressed some of these deeper questions about the intersection of boxing, violence, and respect, but failed to do so. Instead, it leaves us with the idea that a paraplegic is right when she says she would be better off dead.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.