Faith, Forgiveness, and Frogs: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’

Paul Thomas Anderson is an undeniably powerful voice in American cinema. With his sophomore feature, Boogie Nights, he crafted a story which centered on actors in the porn industry and revolved the narrative around the people themselves, rather than their  controversial profession. Like the best directors, Anderson refuses to judge his characters. We see them at their best and at their worst. We see them wallow in the depths of sin and debauchery, and then we watch as they seek grace and redemption. Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature film, Magnolia, is no different in the uncompromising approach to such Biblical themes.

With Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson solidifies his stance in Hollywood as a cross between Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman, someone who deeply understands and can accurately capture the human condition on celluloid. Like Bergman, the message comes across technically and artistically through graceful tracking shots, meticulous editing, and incredible performances from a talented cast. Much like Altman, Anderson utilizes a large ensemble to tell sprawling stories.

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Magnolia interweaves nine separate storylines that collide with one another by way of coincidence and chance. It centers on six different characters during the course of one day in San Fernando Valley, California. The interactions between the characters are so intricately woven into the narrative and so complex that an attempt to elaborate in this review would definitely lead to spoilers for those who have yet to see the film.

The characters presented in this film are all going through some sort of personal crisis. Most of them seek redemption throughout the course of the film. Some of them find it. Others aren’t so lucky. We see them as they struggle to mend torn relationships, find love, and search for acceptance. We see them communicate with and search for God, until ultimately, God finds them in the most miraculous and spectacular of ways.

This is a film that has the power to either change lives or change the way you perceive the world and those around you. The strength of the film lies not only in the masterful direction, but in the performances. With a cast that includes Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, and Philip Baker Hall, Paul Thomas Anderson achieves the extraordinary. You care for these people. You want to see them succeed. When they do, it is wonderful. When they do not, it is a crushing blow that you feel in your heart.

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The music in Magnolia serves as the heart of the film. The film was largely inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann, with lyrics that mirror what we are seeing on the screen. One unforgettable scene just happens to be a musical sequence set to the song, “Wise Up”. The score from composer, Jon Brion, is just as crucial to the success of the film. His score flows throughout, a constant force, weaving in and out, leading us from one moment to the next.

As for the polarizing finale in Magnolia, it is one of the most memorable moments in the history of film – a pure example of the way in which the divine finds its way into modern cinema. Whether or not this was Anderson’s intention is immaterial. It is an inherently personal moment, a different experience for each individual – and the perfect ending to a perfect film.

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