Million Dollar Baby
“Always protect yourself.” That is the prime rule that Frankie Dunn teaches his fighters. He reinforces this rule over and over. It’s not bad advice for someone going into a boxing ring where another person will be trying to knock them unconscious. But as we watch Million Dollar Baby we see that in reality, Frankie’s number one rule is evidence of a lack of faith – in himself or in anyone else.
Because of the power that the plot twists of this film generate when they happen, I’m going to limit my comments to the role of faith in this film. To go through the twists and issues that are raised before someone sees the film would rob the movie of some force behind its punch (which is a strong right cross). I will say, though, that you should not go into this looking for a Rocky-esque triumph. There are dark turns in this story that help to make this one of the top films of the year.
Clint Eastwood films (the films he directs and many of the films he has starred in) often have strong spiritual messages that grow out of looking at the dark side of life. The grungy gym that is the location for most of this film is figurative of the seaminess of the boxing world. That one has the chance to make this world of sweat and struggle a path to redemption is a key element of this film. But it’s not easy to find that redemption.
Frankie has in effect been hiding in this gym for the last twenty-some years. He’s trained several boxers, some of whom have moved to the big time, but always without him. He keeps trying to protect them; he’s really obstructing them. Frankie always wants his fighters to get “two or three more fights” before they are ready to challenge for the title. It is only after they get a new manager that they get their chance. Frankie is afraid. He’s seen boxers get hurt. And as the film plays out we learn why he has such fears.
Frankie is a puzzle in terms of faith. Outwardly, he seems to be a person of faith. We see him kneeling beside the bed to pray, but it’s a pretty pathetic prayer. He goes to mass every morning, but afterwards tries to bait the priest into theological debates. He is struggling for something to believe in. That lack of faith is a key part of his worry. He wants his fighters to protect themselves, because deep down, he doesn’t believe anyone will protect them. He knows he’s incapable of protecting them. He doesn’t trust God to protect them.
Into his gym comes Maggie Fitzgerald, a young woman who wants to be a boxer and wants Frankie to train her. Despite his refusal, Maggie keeps coming, pounding on a heavy bag day after day. Her life has been hard. She sees this as her only way out. And she has utter faith in Frankie to make her into a boxer. She risks everything just to get Frankie to help her.
This contrast between Frankie’s fear and Maggie’s trust creates the framework for the film that allows us to look at the role faith and trust play in how we find the way to true life. For Maggie to fulfill her calling and make use of the ability she has cultivated under Frankie’s care, Frankie has to accept risk. Maggie has to be able to go against fighters who are better and younger than she. They have the potential to do great harm to her. Frankie has to begin to trust in Maggie’s ability.
There is yet another character that plays an important part in this film. Scrap-Iron Dupris, an ex-fighter who cleans up and helps around the gym, serves as a catalyst between Frankie and Maggie. In some ways, I see him as a representation of the Holy Spirit. It is Scrap’s voice that narrates the story. It is he who sees the potential in Maggie and knows the pain that lives within Frankie. By bringing them together, he seems to know that they have the potential to complete one another. Scrap is an ongoing presence watching over all that happens in the story and leading its characters to find their way to life.
While the story has a very dark turn, it is also a film that teaches us that there are great things that can be accomplished if we allow ourselves to trust and not live in fear. Sometimes “protecting oneself” can do us more harm than letting ourselves risk all while trusting in what we have.