Clint Eastwood’s 2004 Million Dollar Baby depicts the tragic boxing career of Maggie Fitzgerald and her attempts to find meaning and purpose amidst the misery of her backwoods, poverty-stricken Missouri upbringing and her desire to compete as a boxer. The film explores the philosophical claims of existentialism, which advocates that man should attempt to find meaning and purpose in life by struggling against and in spite of the absurdity of human existence. In the same manner that Sisyphus, of French existentialist Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” finds meaning in his eternal struggle heaving a colossal boulder up a hill in Tartarus despite the futility of his own actions, so Maggie Fitzgerald must find meaning in a sport for which she is mocked, scorned, and refused by all around her because she is a girl—and girls shouldn’t box. The film’s central characters, Maggie and Frank Dunn, demonstrate the central tenets of existentialism by trying to create meaning in life in spite of its absurdity and, in the film’s context, the absence of a personal and powerful Creator to impart meaning to our actions.
Maggie’s determination to compete and win in the world of female boxing reflects this central tenet of existentialism. Contrasted with the young, athletic boxers at Frank Dunn’s gym, the possibility of this 37 year-old waitress surviving a fight—much less winning any of them, is exceedingly unlikely. Yet, when Frank confronts her about the onerous task ahead of her, Maggie refuses to yield and do anything different because boxing is “the only thing I ever felt good doing.” Maggie clings to boxing, despite its danger and absurdity, because she finds purpose in it analogous to the need all individuals have to create meaning in life.
While existentialism may be traced back to the writings of the Christian philosopher Søren Kirerkegaard (1813-55), most of its proponents, such as the atheists Albert Camus or Frederick Neitzsche, recognized that meaning and values in life they sought to create filled the void of a personal God who imparts meaning to man by the knowledge of Himself. Eastwood, as the film’s director, intersperses many scenes of Frank Dunn berating his local priest and criticizing Christianity among the many scenes showcasing Frank’s compassion for his fighters. As many skeptic existentialist philosophers advocate, Frank attempts to find meaning and purpose in life despite life’s absurdity and in the absence of a personal God. Frank develops a fatherly bond with Maggie closer than his relationship with his own daughter in his attempt to make peace with the God Frank does not seem to think much of. Subsequently, Frank attempts to justify many of his past failures, such as those with his daughter and Eddie Dupris’ tragic eye injury, by sheltering his fighters rather than accept the terms of forgiveness God offers forth in Jesus Christ.
The film’s tragic conclusion comes in the film’s final moments as Frank Dunn resolves to assist in the suicide of Maggie Fitzgerald after suffering a serious brain injury in a prizefight. Maggie, having stated the sense of purpose and fulfillment she derives from boxing, resolves to meet death on her own terms rather than waste away in her hospital bed. When Frank’s priest warns him of his final, absolute estrangement from God should he assist Maggie in her suicide, Frank provides the lethal injection needed to stop her heart. In the absence of a personal God who is, in Himself, the source of meaning in life, Frank Dunn must create meaning and value from his relationship with Maggie and aid her in anyway he can, even assisting in her suicide.
As the film ends, the camera centers on the Ozarks diner Maggie and Frank had talked of owning together and so indicates that Frank has found peace with himself although he has detached from everything else in life. In Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood employs boxing as a means to investigate how man attempts to find meaning and purpose in life when life becomes absurd, violent, and tragic, especially in the absence of a personal God who imparts purpose to even the most horrendous of life’s events.