Million Dollar Baby and Nietzsche’s Atheism
When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, this reflected both the joy and pain that this awareness brought. It appears that the free will that this liberation brought is also a burden, while people are orphans seeking a new meaning to justify their existence on earth. As the film Million Dollar Baby implies, this search is a non-stop battle of a lonely individual.
From the very beginning of the film, the theme of faith and religion is introduced. Frankie Dunn is genius as a boxing trainer but only locally recognized at the moment. His sport is quite tough and aggressive, so his spiritual search contrasts with what he does. When we see him praying, it is clear that he is full of doubt because he cannot make sense of formal religious rituals. This is why he comes to the church and addresses his doubts to a priest who is hardly able to resolve it. Frankie needs faith to justify his existence but he fails to feel the truth about religion and connect it to reality he faces daily. He is an incredible lonesome person because he is unable to build meaningful social connection, including establishing relations with his own daughter. Religion does not give answer to these challenges, and when his best boxer leaves him, this only emphasizes cruelty and injustice that the world brings to people. Hibbs calls the philosophy of the film “nihilistic” and emphasizes that “the human condition is a barren landscape, a place dominated by amoral forces and marked by brutal indifference to human longing and suffering”(Hibbs).
In the same way, Maggie Fitzgerald with her “white trash” background is presented as a person who is confined to this hopeless existence. Her dream to become a boxer looks like madness, taking into account that she is thirty one and has never had a good trainer to teach her even basics professionally. However, when introducing Maggie, the director offers a different type of faith, which is contrasted with religion. This faith is desperate because a person has nothing to lose and because their existence is already hopeless. In Nietzsche’s interpretation, because God is dead, a person has nobody to rely on, no sweet promises of salvation that religion can offer. Thus, in order to carry on, a person needs to make out some meaning that would make their existence worthy. As Nietzsche says, “existence and the world can be eternally justified only an aesthetic experience”. Boxing is a means of self-expression for Maggie and her only hope, and moreover it is what gives meaning for people around her including Frankie. They can see her determination and belief in her dream, which looks impossible at first sight, but which lights up her existence with significance. Thus, according to atheistic views, there is no source of faith outside human being, whose will is the only power to fight their own limitations. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the film’s gloomy outlook that people are condemned from the very beginning. In a sense, it is this knowledge that they are condemned which makes them strong because this strips illusions away and makes them focus on what is really meaningful: existence itself, even if the sad ending is inevitable. This can be seen not only in actions of the main characters but also supporting ones, like for instance Danger Barch who has zest for being a boxer but his physical condition would not allow him to be success. His example makes the views ponder on the question: if there are limitations that make one’s dream impossible, should it be dropped? The answer that “atheist” faith gives is that one should continue trying even though there is zero chance because it is this very trying that gives meaning to existence as demonstration of true human spirit. Boxing is a metaphor of an individual’s existence, when they are one to one with their challenges, and are utterly lonely, even though a trainer and a full hall of people can be present nearby. “Beneath the surface of our conventional moral and religious codes, what we discern is pure chaos, an amoral universe. Who wins in this world? The victor is the fighter who is untroubled by the effete demands of conscience and who is willing to break any rule to destroy an opponent and thus insure her own victory.” ( Hibbs)
When Dunn explains the philosophy of boxing as being opposite to conventional human life, it is made clear that it is an existential manifesto to a large extent. As he mentions, while a normal person tries to avoid pain, a boxer rushes forward to meet this pain. So, this experiencing pain instead of escaping from it is what gives meaning to the characters’ lives. The fate of Maggie is tragic: her family are indifferent and selfish, even though she tries hard to demonstrate their love for them and improve their lives. Even when she is paralyzed after spinal break with no chance to recover, they visit her in the hospital only to get a signature for having her money. This episode breaks religious picture of the world as being ruled by God because, like Frankie and Maggie, the viewers cannot find answer to the question why Gods lets injustice and suffering happen to the people who do not deserve it. Maggie loses faith in her family when she has to drive them out of the hospital, so Frankie is the only person who stays by and who cares about her. Despite the fact that the situation is hopeless, he tries to encourage Maggie, which shows that the meaning was not in boxing or in the way to championship but in simple human connection, which both of them lacked. She became his daughter, while he became her father, and this gave meaning to the whole story.
The right to die is another ethical issue, which is raised and which contradicts with religious prescriptions. Frankie goes to church every day for many years to find meaning there but he fails to do so, but he still wants to listen to the priest’s advice about helping Maggie die. Maggie tries to commit suicide several times but it is prevented by doctors, so Dunn is her only hope to leave the world. The dilemma of Frankie is painful because she is the dearest person to him, so letting her go is making his own existence meaningful. At the same time, helping her is the true act of selfish love, when refusal from meaning becomes the most meaningful act for a person. Even though official religion forbids euthanasia as a sin, he resorts to it, which demonstrates that a person’s free will his their main benefit that the world without God has. At the end of the film, the meaning of Maggie’s nickname is uncovered to demonstrate that she was the most precious treasure for Frankie: the words on her gown in Irish “Mo Chuisle” mean “ my darling”, or literally “my pulse”.
Overall, the film is a touching and tragic drama about search of meaning and perusing one’s goal despite little hope and cruelty of the world. This very determination and human attachment gives people’s lives meaning despite absence of God on the arena.