Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia is one of the more divisive films to come out in the past decade. Everyone who sees it seems to have an opinion about it, offered in strong terms. It’s often a love it or hate it proposal. This polarized reaction is quite interesting, and seems to be spurred on by the feature of the film that most excites me: its aggressiveness. Director P.T. Anderson leaves no room for middling positions on Magnolia. The varied opening sequence, complete with an homage to silent films, certainly raises an eyebrow for the uninitiated. The confidence and fluidity of his camera cause the viewer to either come along for the ride or bail out quickly. The in your face attitude of characters and dialogue, often so full of vulgarity that it cannot be ignored, leave viewers challenged and at times, reeling. Even the placement of music, with his fearless decision to turn his film into a musical 2/3 of the way through, smells of someone throwing all his cards on the table in an effort to push the viewer into a corner, leaving them nowhere to go and unsure of what might come next. And of course, no one could imagine what would come next, with Anderson leaving his most aggressive move for last.

All of this gets the blood boiling, as these elements contribute in their own ways to imbuing the film with meaning. However, it is chiefly that meaning, varied and expansive, that makes this film memorable and infinitely watchable several years after its release.

Once the characters are introduced, we hear the key line in the film, spoken twice fairly early in the film: ‘And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”’ In the film’s early moments, we are introduced to a series of people deeply scarred by their pasts. Lies, drugs, sexual indiscretion, desertion, and theft populate the lives of these characters. This repeated line should resonate in our minds as we watch these people and the mess they’ve made of their lives.

The real centerpiece of the film’s story, it seems to me, is the game show What Do Kids Know? hosted by Jimmy Gator. The title’s double meaning in the context of the film is telling. While the show deals with mindless trivia that either feeds kids’ overenthusiastic sense of pride or places them up on a pedestal only to be knocked down for the sake of entertainment, the mosaic of the film is all about parents and children. As we see both kids and the adults they become scarred by a lifetime of poor decisions their parents made, we wonder if the title of that game show might have been in Earl or Jimmy’s mind some other time in their past. Also, a line that seems to come from almost out of nowhere takes on a much greater significance in this context. After Donnie confesses his love for Brad the bartender, he runs to the bathroom, and while vomiting over the toilet, he can be heard mumbling a verse from the Bible (Exodus 20:5). He says the children are punished for the sin of the fathers. The fact that it comes from a religious text lends transcendence to the proceedings, though Anderson subverts it nicely by having it spoken over a filthy barroom toilet. Big things are indeed happening in the midst of the stench of this world.

This punishment spoken of by Donnie raises its head in the form of suffering and poor choices, and is true of every child in the film: the young African-American boy named Dixon, Stanley, Donnie, Frank Mackey, and Claudia. Each of them carries deep scars and pain from the failure of their parents (usually their fathers). In Dixon’s case, his father is a killer, thus putting his son in harms way. On top of that Officer Jim Kurring fails to listen to his rap, thus denying Dixon an important moment in his life (and bringing further harm on himself). Stanley’s dad is more concerned about money and using his kid to bolster his acting career than he is about caring for the real needs of affection and approval in his son. Donnie’s parents stole his money. Neither does it seem they prepared him well for adulthood. Frank’s father Earl bailed on the family when his wife Lily got sick. Jimmy molested his daughter and even when staring death in the face, refuses to admit it. The cause of all these failures is beautifully summed up in a line from Earl Partridge (father of Frank), when he states: “I’ll tell you the greatest regret of my life: I let my love go.” This heartbreaking commentary on a failed life gets at the heart of the conflict in each relationship. It also provides a link toward the way of reconciling with the past and moving forward in renewed relationships – these people need to find that lost love.

Just after the characters sing Aimee Mann’s Wise Up, a moment at which it seems they will each give up, the rain stops and they seem to be making some changes. Jim and Claudia, Jimmy and Rose, Frank and Earl – all of them are honest with each other, revealing bits of who they are and how they feel about one another. But with that honesty, there is still anger, mistrust, and fear. Then, the frogs come.

They are an announcement, a judgment, and a means of grace rolled into one. They announce for us a second time that something transcendent is going on. There is more going on in this world than meets the eye. These people are not alone (both the biblical references to Exodus 8:2 and the framing segments on coincidences are key in this conclusion). The frogs also come as a judgment on the truly wicked lives these people have led. Earl takes his last breath during the downpour. Jimmy appears as if he will suffer his last months alone. Donnie, recently becoming a thief, is thrown for a hard fall from the ladder.

But what makes this final climactic incident so important is the way it allows for grace in the lives of these lonely people. Jim is able to give a helping hand to Donnie, who desperately needs someone to care for him. Claudia gets to experience the comforting embrace of her mother, this time with all the honesty of their past open before them. Frank and Stanley witness this strange and miraculous occurrence, softening their hard edges and providing them with the courage to strive for a better way once morning comes.

After the narrator repeats the key line: ‘And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,”’ we get a final monologue from Jim. It’s on the subject of forgiveness. The implication here is that through forgiveness, one can find that lost love Earl spoke of. Jim talks honestly about forgiveness, that it isn’t easy, and at least in his job, not always called for. But he asks the question: “What can we forgive?” In other words, are things ever so far gone that we can’t forgive?

The film leaves us then with people on the road to personal renewal: Frank, his face tear-stained, stumbling through the hospital to visit Linda, Jim helping Donnie to return the money, Stanley telling his dad how their relationship needs to be characterized by kindness, Rose caring for Claudia, and Jim coming to be with Claudia, who, in the famous closing shot, provides us with a glorious (albeit slightly broken) smile after all this madness.

The question remains: What do kids know? Well, maybe they know more than trivia, more than we parents give them credit for. Maybe they know how to forgive, to begin the process of healing their broken relationships, and to move on with their lives. Maybe they can even break the cycle of wickedness, sparing their own kids some of their torturous experience. Maybe…