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By Paul Bullock • June 28th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
New Line Cinema

Release date: December 25th, 1999
Running time: 188 minutes

Writer & Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: William H. Macy, Jeremy Blackman, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise


Religion is a theme that seems close to Anderson’s heart. Whether it’s Paul Dano’s dogmatic preacher Eli in There Will Be Blood or the sense of divine intervention that pervades Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s cinema has always come with a significant slice of spirituality.

The director’s third film, the sprawling, Altman-esque melodrama Magnolia, is perhaps his most complete and fascinating exploration of spirituality (or was before The Master). It contains enough covert references to Exodus 8:2 to make even Eli blush. That biblical passage, of course, refers to the plague of frogs and Magnolia concludes, famously, with another amphibian downpour.

Anderson has denied any direct Christian influence on this scene, saying that he was initially unaware of Exodus 8:2 and that he was instead inspired by the work of paranormal writer Charles Fort when conceiving of Magnolia‘s finale.
That may seem hard to believe at first, but the film bears him out. Magnolia is a spiritual film, but its spirituality is complex. Neither necessarily Christian nor entirely secular, it asks us to believe in something, but not something heavenly.

The film opens with a narrator recounting three different stories about coincidence. One, by way of example, finds a resident of a village called Greenberry Hill being killed by three men, one called Green, one called Berry, one called Hill.
Is this fate? Coincidence? Or something else? The film is under no illusions. “It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘Something That Happened’”, we’re told. “This cannot be ‘One of Those Things…’ This, please, cannot be that.”


Anderson then begins weaving a new story of “intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows” (as the narrator says at the end of the film). His sprawling tale features washed-up child star Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the modern-day child superstar who looks set to take his place. It tells of the show Stanley appears on, its host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) and Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), the cop who’s in love with her. Finally, it presents the show’s dying producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his gold-digging wife Linda (Julianne Moore) and his home-help Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s tasked with reuniting the old man with his estranged son, misogynistic sex guru Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise).

As these characters’ stories play out, Anderson reaffirms the spiritual elements of the film through his shooting style. Long tracking shots suggest some kind of divine intervention, clean, synchronised cutting from one scene to the next hints at a kind of spiritual togetherness between the stories, and repeated references to the sky and weather assert a celestial interference. Then, of course, there’s that plague of frogs. This sequence is the most explicitly religious one in the film. It brings all the characters in this disparate tapestry together and opens with Kurring, who’s departing a date with Claudia. He sees a desperate Donnie attempting a break-in at a nearby store and pulls up to stop him.

It’s here that the downpour begins, and unlike in the Bible, this isn’t a malign act, but a benign one, designed to bring the Magnoliacharacters together. Donnie, for example, is knocked off the wall he’s trying to climb, leaving Jim to come to his rescue. Claudia’s mother, an innocent victim of her husband’s estrangement from his daughter, visits her in an attempt to protect her, helping the two to reconnect. The storm brings Frank and Linda together in a different, more painful way. Struck by a pang of conscience, Linda had tried to kill herself before the downpour began. She was saved, but the ambulance that took her to the hospital crashed because of the falling frogs, and with Earl dying during the storm, it’s up to Frank to visit Linda in hospital.

It’s somewhat fitting that the only character who seems at peace with these events is Stanley. He’s the innocent of the story, and he views the storm with a sense of clarity. “This is something that happens,” he says as he watches the frogs fall. “This is just something that happens.” The film concludes with an epilogue. The narrator from the prologue speaks once again of strange events and coincidences and Anderson reasserts that these occurrences do not happen arbitrarily. It returns us to the film’s central question: if this isn’t simple chance, then what is it?

Anderson leaves it up to us, the audience, to decide, but offers one tantalising suggestion that is neither religious, nor Fortean. Having helped Donnie out, Jim drives to Claudia’s apartment to finally pledge his love for her. He narrates his inner thoughts, revealing: “If you can forgive someone… Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive?” What indeed? Perhaps this question is the religion of Magnolia; not a divine force that bonds us, but the ability to look beyond each other’s failings and find something richer, something more relatable, something good in everyone, no matter their flaws, that inspired us to forgive their more negative attributes. After all, as the saying goes, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

Paul Bullock

Paul Bullock

Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.

When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.

Paul can also be found talking nonsense on Twitter and his website Quiet of the Matinee. He works through his addiction to a certain bearded director on From Director Steven Spielberg.

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