The consistency of a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson is enough to place him among the very best American auteurs working today, for his sophomore feature Boogie Nights he has only ever managed to turn out hit after hit at a rate that’s near indescribable. But determining a favourite film of such an impressive body of work can already be enough of a challenge for many, although for me I feel like it would be easy enough to admit that my answer whenever I’m asked what my favourite Paul Thomas Anderson film is none other than his third feature, Magnolia. While all of his films have their many distinguishable qualities, something about Magnolia has a specific potency to it that I think many of his later films never lived up to. That having been said, I can’t help but admit that this film was a turning point for my own love of film, with it being my all-time favourite film for a period of time while I was in high school. Even today, I can’t help but hold the film in such high regard, because I feel like there’s so much about Magnolia that also feels so fully realized for a young filmmaker like Anderson, because every time I come back to this film I keep thinking to myself I’d never be able to make anything of this sort at any point of my life.
Putting things bluntly, this is a film all about falling – as it all takes place in the course of a single day in the San Fernando Valley. Opening on a fitting note with three separate vignettes all about coincidence, what comes forth is an ambitious mosaic that perhaps may be described as a product so overwhelming it’s almost difficult to believe. It’s a film with many stories to tell all at once, creating an epic all about a greater search that takes place in as little as a single day – in all the chaos that became so definitive of the region, for a sense of happiness, as past karmas come back to haunt these people living in the moment. To describe the many occupations of these characters within their own threads would already occupy so much space in a single paragraph, but the way in which Anderson weaves every moment together on the spot is impressive because they all come together to form something greater. You notice the commonalities between each character and their many flaws, but because of such you feel either sympathy or revolt for what’s to come – forming an overwhelming experience on its own.
From the recurring motif of coincidence, what Paul Thomas Anderson crafts in Magnolia is a film all about what brings people together in one sense. But amidst the chaos that is ever-present in the film, it also brings out the philosophical nature of the story because you are only ever seeing people realizing their destiny in the course of a single day. Everything happens so swiftly on what could easily have been an ordinary day, but it also creates one of the most resonant effects from the storytelling – because there’s only so much extraordinary circumstances that could take place in a day that could easily have been any other, but whether or not we choose to see it all as mere coincidence is also what determines what comes forward. For maybe something else of this sort all happens elsewhere, and you’re only experiencing a daily routine that repeats itself with every passing moment. Magnolia captures the chaos of those passing moments that we never notice with ease and pulls us in as viewers to see these characters’ lives from their own shoes – though it begs the question as to whether these commonalities you find within their transformations can only be coincidence and nothing more. It’s often repeated that these are things that happen, no matter how much we choose not to believe it, but we’re allowed time to wonder the extent to which it may find its way into our lives.
In every Paul Thomas Anderson film, no matter how cathartic the nature of the scenario may be, he also has a grasp at how the connection through a range of emotions brings one closer to his own characters in order to see more human instincts coming into play. For every moment that can be read as being comedic (Frank T. J. Mackey’s presence is one that is loaded with comedy, for one), then a sudden shift can be felt as the film drifts into even more chaos as everyone starts breaking down. But it also allows you to look through the cracks of each character and their many flaws that often go unnoticed too, arguably the best example being the arc of Tom Cruise as Frank T. J. Mackey. It’s easy enough to say that Tom Cruise’s performance as Mackey is a stunner, but getting to the core of what makes a performance like this work isn’t as simple as coming down to seeing human error in his own ways. It’s a role that works because you have a set expectation for what Cruise’s star status would set forth for what he represents, yet Anderson turns that around on itself by giving him a character so repulsive from his first moment onward. Yet there’s a level of vulnerability that Anderson gets down to in such a character that creates a mesmerizing performance from start to finish.
There comes another theme in the film that would also build up the catharsis all too perfectly, because every character feels as if their pains have been masked in some way or another. Some perhaps more drastic than others, but as the masks come off, a common breaking point is realized for each and every person. Such a scene is clear from Linda Partridge’s (Julianne Moore) breakdown in the pharmacy as she goes on a profanity-filled tirade against a young pharmacist who thinks he may try to start a regular conversation with someone he doesn’t know. It makes clear what everyone goes through, but how all of these pains still find themselves into one story results in a differing effect in another. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith’s (William H. Macy) turnout could easily be what could happen to Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) based on the way his parents treat him. Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) cannot come to terms with her father, the noted game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) simply wants to do the right thing, yet is distracted by a lack of romance in his own life. What happens as the masks of these people’s pasts are removed? Is it all a matter of chance that they have so much in common?
Something else that I find so deeply resonant here is the way in which every character also copes with a sense of redemption, because there is a looming feeling of regret present all throughout the film. Everyone wants to change up something that they’ve already done in the past that they know they’re already too late for. What happens as they confront that feeling in the present? What are the consequences of every person’s actions as they all reach that point where they’re all coming to terms with what’s coming forward? Are these people ever ready to meet up with fate? It’s something that I ask myself regularly because I know there’s a point to which even I keep my own hardships masked in one way, and removing it would only distance me further from those I love most. And I know I have my past regrets but masking them would even turn me into someone I don’t want to become, which happened to certain characters in here, if there was any other way of observing the circumstances. Will redemption really be as easy as we think? I don’t know if that’s something I want an answer to, knowing what happened as death was about to arrive for anyone here.
I think what makes Magnolia such a beautiful piece of work is the way in which the most extraordinary circumstances that come throughout all tie into creating a bigger picture at hand. I can’t ever imagine a second of this being changed, because watching every character’s story being told all at once perfectly captures the very confusion that everyone experiences as something bigger comes forward to haunt them. It’s amazing to me that Paul Thomas Anderson could ever manage to create something like this at such a young age, because there’s a certain quality that he captures the building blocks that form life as it is in such a relentless manner in Magnolia. It’s a film that you feel exhausted after finishing, not because you’re ever bored, but as the result of the film laying down so much on you within the moment, but that’s every bit of why I think it’s so perfect. Indulgent it may be as an experiment, yet I can’t deny how fascinated I am by how much can Anderson capture in that frantic pacing. But the way he allows the music to take up the scene is yet another skill, because in the end, the song’s title, “Save Me,” written and performed for the film by Aimee Mann, reflects something we desire most. Yet there’s no clarity, and that’s why I find it so breathtaking. It’s just something that haunted me throughout my whole life and whenever I come back, I realize another thing that bites me again. I can’t point my finger on it, yet I know I want to.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via New Line Cinema.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by JoAnne Sellar
Starring Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters
Release Date: December 17, 1999
Running Time: 188 minutes
A stunning film. One of my favorites, and probably my second favorite PTA film (after Boogie Nights). I’ve watched it many times–most recently at a sold-out 35mm screening that John C. Reilly introduced back in October, then again on New Years Eve. It never fails to move me on many levels, and I can’t think of another film with a three hour running time that goes by as quickly as this one does. Just brilliant.