Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia, begins with a series of vignettes for approximately five minutes. Narrator Ricky Jay tells us of three different unrelated occurrences: the first one being the murder of a man at Greenberry Hill (the murderers last names were Green, Berry, and Hill), the second one being the death of a casino dealer and a war pilot who committed suicide and the interaction/connection they had, and the third one involving a man attempting to commit suicide, but ended up getting inadvertently shot and killed by his mother. The basic thread of these stories is the matter of chance, which is discussed quite lengthily. In another auteur’s hand, this could’ve came across as an insufferable, heavy-handed, self-indulgent, pretentious ploy to come across as more intelligent than the audience and as more unique than your average filmmaker, when in all actuality, is just being ingratiatingly patronizing and overextending their welcome to the point of tedium. However, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hands, he captivates us with those stories, leaving us waiting where they are going to lead us to. It’s a clever decision, among many, on Anderson’s part.
The film revolves around various characters that are all interconnected. There’s a police officer named Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) who balances the duty of his job and his rapidly quick affection for Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), a girl whose apartment he raided on the job. Claudia is the daughter of Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a game show host who has cancer, and Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon). One of the contestants on the show Gator hosts is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius pressured by his father (Michael Bowen) to succeed on the show. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a former contestant on that show, whose life is going down the tubes and desperately wants braces to win the heart of a male bartender. The game show’s former producer is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying of cancer. He is under the care of his wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), and Phil Parma (Phil Seymour Hoffman), who is given the task of finding his son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a flamboyant instructor on how to pick up women.
Yes, this is one of those type of films, a la 2005’s Crash. However, the genius of this film is that, unlike other films of this ilk, this one doesn’t particularly draw a direct web to how these characters relate. It’s there, but it’s rather vague, instead letting the dynamics unfold slowly and naturally. In fact, that’s how the script, written by Paul Thomas Anderson, is constructed, not just in terms of the relevance of the characters in their lives and their personal connections to each other, but also for their thematic relevance and draw.
The film introduces these characters by showing them either on TV or watching TV and near the end, you see a lot of them on telephones. With that statement, one would think that throughout everything going on in their lives, they all share an inability to create and maintain positive relationships, be it romantic or blood, instead finding more ease and connection with the imaginary, misleading paradise projected in a black box and that the challenge is for them to develop a stronger sensibility and connection to reality and the relationships that are present, but are never discovered or pursued. But this isn’t the case.
As the film progresses and the characters are given more careful observations, I began to think that the characters are all united by some form of tension in their lives that they are faced with: Jim simultaneously losing his gun and having a desperate desire to pursue Jim, despite his highly delicate and dignified position, Claudia’s desire to keep her cocaine addiction a secret from Jim, in order to not get arrested, Jimmy’s fight to survive cancer and keep his job, Stanley’s objective to succeed on the game show, his father’s pressure for Stanley to succeed, Donnie’s attempt to get money for braces, Linda’s need to support his ailing husband whilst dealing with other emotions arising from this unfortunate situation, Phil having to summon Frank to see his dad and Frank being confronted with a lie during an interview, as well as having to confront his sick father. While this is true, I soon felt that that conceit seemed too simplistic for a film as intricate as this.
I then wondered if the link connecting these characters was the idea that these characters have done something displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. I’ll get more into religious affiliations later, but in that mindset, I thought Anderson was presenting these characters as flawed under the eyes of God. Claudia’s a drug addict, Donnie plots to steal, both Earl and Linda have admitted to infidelity, Phil watches pornography, Jimmy is accused of molestation, and Frank is delivering messages in his seminars that could be identified as misogynistic, shallow, or both. While a case could be made for this, I felt that this idea still didn’t feel complete or entirely correct. Stanley could, I guess, be seen as disobeying his father, but his father is the one who is putting more pressure on Stanley than he needs. Jim is falling for a girl he just met while on duty, but I am confident in saying that it’d probably be a stretch to say that God would classify this as sinning. Then, I thought that the common thread maybe isn’t what they’re doing but how they react to it. By that I mean, they look for a way out in themselves, not through God. They resort from something as mere as wallowing in their own pity to something more severe, such as harming themselves. However, that still didn’t sound right to me. It still seemed like that didn’t fit well. It didn’t cohere easily or sound strong enough.
And then, that’s when it hit me. I’m sure the common bond of these characters could be interpreted in many ways, or maybe not, but my final perspective relating to the similarities between the characters is rather quite basic: the inherent quality of misery. All of these characters are feeling misery in some way. And that’s where Exodus 8:2 comes in. “But if you refuse to let them go...” In the context of the film, God is telling the sheer forces of misery to let these innocent people go.
Again, I’ve thoroughly discussed the possibilities for the common theme in all of these characters’ lives, but that’s the experience of the film. It draws you into the experience, letting details reveal themselves slowly but surely throughout the film’s 188 minute length. It’s the kind of film where you are engaged all the way through, but you are constantly asking questions. However, if you just surrender yourself to the experience as a whole, your questions will be answered. But then again, maybe they won’t. Like any experience, it is what you make of it.
Anyway, about Exodus 8:2. It is used as symbolism throughout the film. It’s in the forefront, but it’s actually quite subtle; one of those details you need to pay attention to, in order to recognize it. The placement of the verse works as playful humor, in the way it is placed in the film, and as tantalizing foreshadowing. There is a scene in the film where Wise Up by Aimee Mann plays on the soundtrack and the cast starts singing along to it in different locations. While eccentric, utterly original, and almost poetically funny, it is set up to be the true moment of clarity and catharsis in the film. However, the actual true moment is linked to Exodus 8:2, culminating in one of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking images I have ever seen in a film. While arbitrary and mildly cartoonish, it serves as the dark culmination of the film and the emotional release of the film.
For all I talk about the symbolism and the structure of the screenplay and how it reveals both how the characters relate to each other personally and thematically, that’s more a byproduct of the film. Outside of that, the film has extreme emotional potence. I love how Robert Elswit’s cinematography and Jon Brion & Aimee Mann’s score is focused on both adding to the mood of the film and enhancing it. When we are just getting settled with the film, the camera holds back, showing the characters and locations, as it should, and Aimee Mann’s folksy vocals are graced upon us. However, as the film emotionally raises the stakes and heightens the emotions, the camera becomes more intimate with the actors, honing in on their faces, as if the camera wants to transport into the actors’ minds, but Elswit does such a masterful job at framing the actors at their most emotional states of being that we get every beat, every nuance present. And Jon Brion’s instrumental half of the score during these moments becomes unrelenting, as it swells larger and larger, making the atmosphere unnerving. Then, when it gets “calm,” it’s back to the laid-back, expansive, gorgeous camerawork and the voice of Aimee Mann. The location adds to the atmosphere, as well. In the beginning of the film, the weather is partly cloudy, but still pleasant. As the film progresses, it begins to rain. Showers turn into much heavier rain and near the end, the rain stops at a very odd place, leaving us with a haunting aura of stillness that lingers before God gets the last word in.
Yes, this is a lengthy movie. In fact, the leisurely, meticulous structure of the script makes a three-hour movie actually feel quite longer. However, that is only another pro to the movie. The length of the film actually makes each plotline emotionally taut. The longer the stories continue, the more Anderson subtly adds more layers to them. And, of course, the movie is bolstered by an astounding cast, one of the best ever assembled. O’Reilly plays Officer Jim as desperate, but also stoic. Melora Waters portrays Claudia with that same desperation, but with such aching vulnerability and helplessness that you can’t help but pity her, and her dynamic with Jim is an ingenious juxtaposition. Phillip Baker Hall gives a subtle but passionate performance and Melinda Dillon goes from crying over destroyed turkey in A Christmas Story to emotionally liberating herself in such a gut-wrenching way in one of the film’s strongest moments. Jason Robards portrays Earl with warmth and heart, Julianne Moore brings a manic determination to her performance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is utterly complex, bringing vulnerability and passion to his role, as well. William H. Macy plays Donnie with his usual brand of nervous, Woody Allen-like mannerisms, but his character unfolds in so many different ways that Macy creates such strong emotional moments for him that it’s hard not to feel instantly sad for him. Michael Bowen nails the role of Stanley’s father, while little Jeremy Blackman is surprisingly effective and valiant as Stanley. The stand-out and my personal favorite is Tom Cruise. Cruise has never been more brilliant or powerful than here, as he brings a crazed, demented intensity to his role and hits every mark on the tonal scale impeccably.
To put it bluntly, the film is one of the most spellbinding, intelligent, and spectacular films I have ever seen. It is also one of the ballsiest. Its ability and penchant to be philosophical, cerebral, dramatic, and even humorous, sometimes combined in a single scene, is utterly remarkable and fascinating. I can’t see how there is any other film that came out in 1999 that outdid or bettered Magnolia.
RATING: Four out of four stars!