Eastwood of Eden: The Maturation of Eastwood’s Messiah Complex in Million Dollar Baby

(Originally written in 2004) It’s remarkable how many films made with or by Clint Eastwood use revenge as their primary plot device. A group of guys do something wrong and Eastwood spends the entire film finding the sons of bitches to make them pay. 

In Mystic River, we see a variation on this theme, as Eastwood is not in the film, but uses Sean Penn as his proxy who must avenge the murder of his young daughter. What becomes complicated about this particular story is that after the revenge is carried out, we realize that it has been exacted upon an innocent man. The film leaves the viewer with this knowledge and does not offer any resolution or recompense. Upon first glance, it appears that Eastwood is interrogating the theme of revenge and possibly illustrating that revenge can be blinding or misleading. Certainly, Dennis Lehman's intriguing novel from which the film is adapted does; the weight of the incident in Dave’s (Tim Robbins) childhood as well as his murder orchestrated by his one-time friend do not quickly disappear from the reader’s imagination.

In Eastwood’s hands though, something peculiar happens. He creates a story where you actually feel more sympathy for Jimmy (Sean Penn) than you do for the one who is wrongly accused and murdered by him. This is accomplished in part by Tim Robbins’ acting as it is so mannered and self-conscious that it’s difficult to see him as anything more than a caricature. His mannerisms and ticks are so extreme that any sympathy is strictly superficial. We’re not even shocked when his own wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) tells Jimmy that she thinks her husband is guilty. By the end of the film, very little is said about Dave’s death. On the other hand, there is a revenge manifesto, a soliloquy really, spoken by his wife, Annabeth, (Laura Linney) explaining Jimmy’s actions and making the murder sound justified and noble.

In Million Dollar Baby, the story isn’t really about revenge, but Eastwood still wields the power of judge, jury, and executioner. In fact, he even takes it one step further and elevates himself to be the film’s savior and/or redemptive figure. In the past, one could argue that he acted as a redeemer in an indirect way, particularly by killing the sons of bitches who hurt his friends, or lover, or partner, or the judicial system, etc. In Million Dollar Baby though, his role as redeemer is much more direct. Here, Eastwood plays the aged trainer, Frankie, who, like his friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman), has probably stayed in the business too long. As a character, it’s one we’ve seen before as Eastwood plays a tough old codger with a squint and the patented double take whenever someone says something that gets on his nerves.

The first part of the film is set primarily in the gym and on the road as Maggie trains and then fights numerous opponents. We have some nice moments of character development as Eddie tells Maggie (Hillary Swank), and the viewer, about Frank’s complicated past. After Maggie convinces Frank to train her, the film relies on montage sequences to show her training and the several consequential victories she has. Eventually Maggie meets her match as she fights The Blue Bear (Lucia Rijker). It is during this fight that Maggie becomes paralyzed from a bizarre cheap shot that causes her to fall and hit her head on a wooden stool. I’m convinced that if any other director tried pulling this preposterous scene off, he would have been laughed off the screen. However for some reason, I think critics give Eastwood a free pass with scenes like these. Such was the case with the film’s second part when Maggie is in the hospital, post injury. The film nearly comes to a screeching halt here as we are steeped in pure melodrama straight from daytime T. V. I don’t understand how critics have turned such a blind eye to this or to the ridiculous stereotypes depicted by Maggie’s white trash (as she puts it) family. I was also baffled by the character Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel) who was so bizarrely contrived that he seemed like something out of a Looney Toons cartoon.

While most critics and the Motion Picture Academy lauded the film, many conservative, pro-life advocates criticized it for promoting euthanasia. I found the debate interesting but ultimately thought it was the wrong argument. Where the movie fails is that it makes this choice too easy for Frank. In fact there is no choice at all. Eastwood undermines the complexity of his film when he shows the priest as an unreliable source of wisdom. This is done through a brief scene that is played mainly for laughs. Frank begins needling Father Horvack (Brian O’Byrne) about the Holy Trinity; in just a matter of moments the young priest becomes exasperated and calls Frank and a "fuckin' pagan." Everyone in the theater seemed to get a chuckle from this scene; however, it presents a problem later within the story. When Frank is wrestling with the moral dilemma concerning Maggie, he goes to the priest to ask for advice. The priest sternly warns him against helping Maggie die. However, since the priest has already been seen as unreliable and even as the butt of a joke, we take his words lightly. The film would have completely shifted in tone and theme if the priest had spoken with authority or wisdom.

From this positioning of authority and the film’s own definition of “good” and “bad” (“bad” being that Maggie would be immobile and consequently have no reason to live) the choice is relatively easy for Frank (and for the viewer). It is clear within the context of the film, that by letting her die, he in turn saves her. What’s more, he has not only elevated himself to the role of savior, but savior to the very person he kills, in fact savior because he kills her. This truly is a remarkable turn. In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood is judge, jury, and executioner, as always, but now he actually gets to save someone by executing him/her. We still have the same man as Will Muney, one capable of killing anyone. However, a new hero has evolved; instead of having to turn to the bottle to assuage any guilt, his “killing” actually sets people free! Within this moral vacuum, Eastwood has arranged a remarkable position of power for himself. Like with Sean Penn's character in Mystic River, it is only Frank for whom we're concerned. He is the one who sacrifices his soul for a friend. With this, Eastwood has assumed every role possible- judge, jury, executioner, the one who dies, the one who redeems, and now- the one redeemed.