“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” At first, that statement feels like a threat. As if all the terrible things that have happened to you will never truly go away, and the harder you suppress them, the worse your punishment when they pop up again. If a person’s identity is largely built on memories, then where can we go to escape from trauma? Hasn’t it made us who we are, and even if we try to reinvent ourselves, aren’t we only reacting to the trauma, thus admitting it was the most significant event of our lives? Besides, the problem with reinvention is that there will always be other people to tie us to our past. Can we avoid them? Should we?
Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s formidable follow-up to Boogie Nights, is an Altmanesque ensemble piece that tells the story of nine main characters who are all connected to each other, sometimes in ways they don’t expect. What they all have in common is that they’re alone. Let me explain. There are many ways to be alone, even when you live in Los Angeles. Some have cut themselves off from intimacy to defend themselves; some have tormented themselves with drugs, either prescription or illicit; some are burdened by what makes them unique; some are now approaching death, the loneliest thing in existence; and some are seeking relationships but haven’t been successful. One pain that many of them share is a rift in the parent-child relationship, caused either by abuse or abandonment in the past.
When the movie begins, these people don’t all realize how similar their problems are, but Anderson does, and he weaves their lives together in a three-hour interpersonal epic about pain, regret, and love. The movie is also about the wonderful strangeness of being alive on earth — the coincidences, mysteries, prodigies (in both senses of the word) — and Anderson uses weather as a metaphor — just as ancient peoples lent ominous qualities to the phenomena of the skies, recognizing in them a way God has chosen to communicate with His creatures. Built upon waves of emotional crisis, Magnolia‘s story hurtles us through one very eventful day toward a biblical reckoning.
Honestly, it’s a pretty tough three hours. The outpouring of emotion hardly ever lets up, and some of the scars we discover on the way are absolutely brutal. But that’s life, isn’t it? And much like a life well-lived, there are frequent instances of humanity in Magnolia that make it all worth it. Anderson seems to be well-nigh bursting with empathy for these characters, and it’s contagious. Catharsis, as the ancient Greeks taught us, comes about when we face our darkest emotions and learn to make some kind of peace with them. Magnolia wants badly for its characters to find peace, and while the film is realistic enough to know that not everyone gets a happy ending, it still has one of the most hopeful endings I’ve ever seen. The payoff here is much, much better than any merely pleasant experience could ever be.
The movie as a whole is a strange hybrid of irony and sincerity, artificiality and realism. Made in the nineties, the heyday of movies that knew they were movies, Magnolia winks at the audience from time to time, breaking the fourth wall with aplomb. However, while other movies celebrate/skewer fakery, such as genre tropes and audience manipulation, Magnolia wants us to understand that all of the events of the story, no matter how strange, could actually happen. Even more forcefully than that: “But it did happen.” Maybe it’s a self-contradiction, but this is a movie that’s about how real life is stranger than movies, and how real life can sometimes be so strange that, if it were put into a movie, no one would believe it. When we see characters’ lives intersecting in this movie, we might think, There’s obviously a director orchestrating this, because it wouldn’t just happen. Maybe that’s not so different from saying, There’s obviously a divine being orchestrating this, because it couldn’t just happen.
The characters themselves reflect the artificial/realistic dichotomy. I think this movie is extremely well-written, with a complex structure and the ring of truth all the way through. But there’s something interesting about the way the dialogue is written. When characters make speeches, it’s apparent that they’re straining for profundity but can’t quite get there. They get tangled up in words, repeat themselves, finish statements with a questioning look on their faces, like, Have I been understood? This really unmasks the falseness of lesser films, wherein the screenwriters’ lessons ripple out of a character’s mouth at the appropriate time with perfect clarity. In Magnolia, characters simply choose to be honest with themselves, and truth, not rhetoric, makes what they say profound.
My affection for this film has only grown since I first saw it a few years ago. It’s an experience of heightened reality, elevated musically by the one-two punch of Aimee Mann’s songs and Jon Brion’s orchestral score. Anderson’s skills with the camera are on full display, with breathtaking Steadicam shots that show the interconnectedness of the movie’s world. He gets potent performances from all his actors, whether regular collaborators like John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, or one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Tom Cruise. Cruise gives a fearless performance that uncovers the dark side of charisma. Still, I’d say the standout performance belongs to Melora Walters. She is completely brilliant, at turns pathetic, funny (not every character in this movie gets to be funny, and she takes full advantage of the chance), despairing, furious, and afraid. The relationship between her character and Reilly’s is the heart of the film. The cop played by Reilly is the character I find myself connecting with the most. He’s an Everyman, which actually makes him an outsider in this company.
Back to my opening paragraph: the two characters in the movie who try to reinvent themselves to cover up the scars of the past are Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise) and Donnie Smith (Macy). Mackey has been much more successful than Smith, until a reporter discovers the truth about him. When that happens, we see that Mackey is just as crippled by memories of his childhood as Smith is. But I think Mackey gives us a fuller understanding of the film’s thesis: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” It’s not just a threat. It’s actually a statement of hope. Of all the movie’s characters, Mackey, when the story begins, is the least aware that he has problems. By denying his own past, he was trying to forget those problems, but they didn’t go away. The past, embodied in his dying father, comes back – not just to haunt him, but to give him an opportunity to reconcile who he is and who his father is, and to move on as he had failed to do before. There’s one word that sums it all up, and that word is “forgiveness.” In that word we see past, present, and future, and the key to making them fit together.