There's something you should know about Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's new movie.
The film has generated a rare level of critical consensus and is now in a heated head-to-head award competition with Sideways, the other best-reviewed American film of 2004. (Million Dollar Baby recently picked up the top award for 2004 from the National Society of Film Critics.)
A movie just about boxing, as this film is advertised and appears to be, couldn't generate this kind of attention, could it? And-no surprise-Million Dollar Baby is not just about boxing. What is almost guaranteed to take people off guard, especially Christian audiences, is the true subject of the film.
Million Dollar Baby (rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material, and bad language) starts out ordinarily enough. Mr. Eastwood-who also produced, directed, and scored-stars as Frankie Dunn, a grizzled boxing trainer and "cut man" (an expert in stopping the flow of blood during a match). Frankie owns a small Los Angeles gym, where he employs Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a similarly weathered boxer whose career ended with the loss of an eye. Into this world comes Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a too-old country girl who wants to escape her dead-end life through boxing.
The story couldn't sound more commonplace, really: A trainer at the end of his career, looking for his last shot, matched with an eager protégée, with more will than skill, looking for her first, and maybe only, shot.
But then the other shoe drops. Million Dollar Baby's script offers clues to its eventual destination early on, presenting Frankie as a man wracked by guilt (over something to do with an estranged daughter). He attends Mass every day, pestering the priest with probing theological questions. Sadly, the priest doesn't offer Frankie much in the way of answers to these questions-then fails miserably in answering the central question of the movie, when Frankie needs guidance and direction most.
Midway through the film, tragedy strikes, and we learn that the compelling relationship developing between Frankie and Maggie (of the father/daughter sort-there's nothing weird here) is simply the groundwork for a social treatise. Suddenly it is clear why critics love this movie so much.
Revealing that message works against the film's structure. Readers who don't want to know should stop here. But like another year-end critical favorite, The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby takes on the flip side of abortion: euthanasia. And where Mr. Eastwood falls on that issue is, to put it mildly, morally reprehensible.
Million Dollar Baby is well crafted, moving, and full of challenging ideas. But readers be warned-if you watch it, prepare to be confronted, not uplifted and inspired.