Movies that Matter: Magnolia

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia has quite a reputation. Critics and moviegoers alike call it long, slow, confusing, ambitious, peculiar, depressing—and rightfully so. The film has a 188-minute runtime, an unconventional plot, nine protagonists, a musical segment, a scene in which it rains frogs and very unhappy characters. Nevertheless, I would argue that the latter adjective used to describe it is, in the end, misrepresenting. While dark and heavy throughout its better half, this 1999 masterpiece turns out to be one of the most hopeful and spiritual works of cinema I’ve ever seen.

Before going any further, I must provide a disclaimer: the religious background and practices of P. T. Anderson are, for me, unknowable. He’s not a huge press figure; Ebert hasn’t written a book on him; and his Wikipedia page is thin, especially for being the brains behind There Will Be Blood. Thus, my observations about his film are just that, mine and not his, based on interpretations of what for me is clearly distinct.

Though it takes effort to stay connected with the intricate story, the bottom line is this: The characters in Magnolia are empty, hurting people. There’s Jim Kurring, a divorced cop with self-esteem issues, who falls in love with Claudia, the bitter, cocaine-addicted daughter of Jimmy Gater, the terminally ill host of a popular game show that child prodigy Stanley Spector is currently on, and across town is Donnie Smith, an unloved, former whiz kid made famous by the show, which is produced by Earl Partridge, an elderly man dying of cancer, whose wife Linda feels guilty for past infidelities, and son Frank, an expert at seducing and manipulating women, is reconnected to him by Phil, a lonely nurse. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Anderson requires his viewer to work and penetrate the interconnected plots.

The themes of the film are, on the other hand, relatively transparent. From beginning to end, it’s no challenge to see how concerned Magnolia is with the matter of choice. “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,” several characters state. These connected people seem to be eternally plagued for past decisions they or someone else in their lives has made. And no matter how hard they try to start over—to turn their bleak circumstances around—they fail. They can’t do it on their own. The baggage which they carry is too heavy, too burdensome.

When Jimmy shows up at Claudia’s apartment, it’s clear she is unwilling to forgive. And despite good intentions, Jimmy is unable to humble himself before her. Donnie thinks he has to get braces to feel accepted. Frank fights through hatred to find sympathy for his father. All the characters go through these humanizing moments, in which we see their desperation to let go of their hurt and experience joy, but they merely suffer because they, ultimately, can’t overcome their troubles in their own power.

As the multiple threads unfold, the characters’ situations only grow worse. The solemn, carefully building music plays, and it’s as if there’s no hope left for anyone: Jim loses his gun. Linda plots to kill herself. Claudia walks out on Jim. Frank watches as his father dies. Stanley runs away from the show. Jimmy holds a gun to his head. Magnolia becomes utterly gloomy. Until … Millions of frogs suddenly rain down from the heavens. They’re everywhere, pounding against cars and houses, piling up on the streets. But from what initially appears to be pure destruction eventually comes salvation. This supernatural event and loose allusion to Exodus 8 is steadily followed by redemption for each of the characters.

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A frog hits Jimmy in the head, keeping him from shooting himself. Linda is being rescued. Jim’s gun literally falls from the sky in front of him. Donnie returns money he stole to get braces. Stanley tells his dad he needs to be nicer. Frank and Earl reconcile. And Claudia finally begins to forgive Jimmy. Formally enslaved to the past, to pain, the protagonists are delivered by an unexplainable force that gives them the power to face and overcome their problems and to love one another in a way that surpasses any shortcomings an individual may have.

This redemption doesn’t arrive by any particular character’s own merit. The characters have already proven they are incapable of escaping their personal hells through their own strength. The healing and forgiveness they obtain is, instead, implemented by the hand of something greater. Something without human fault. Something perfect. Something divine. And I believe that something is God. Playing an active role in Anderson’s story, He is the driving force that intervenes when nothing else will go right, when all hope is lost.

“Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven,” Jim says. Anderson shows us that we humans, while ingrained with the desire to love, can only truly love and forgive with a miracle. We can’t resolve our tribulations alone. It’s essentially beyond our power. Fortunately for Jim, Claudia, Jimmy, Donnie, Stanley, Earl, Linda, Frank and Phil, they finally find their savior, who arrives mysteriously yet perfectly and when they need Him most.

When I watch Magnolia, I’m not just blown away by how compelling a film it is—the performances, the score, the cinematography; I’m reminded of how wounded and desperate humanity really is. But I am also reminded of how there’s a sovereign, loving God, who defies that depravity—the problems we can’t overcome on our own—and absorbs the pain, ultimately providing liberation. Moreover, I’m reminded of how much I need a savior.

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