Magnolia’s Existential Coincidences

[This first appeared on The Jagged Word on July 28]

Magnolia was the first movie I watched that opened up for me how films could tell stories of sin and redemption without explicitly proceeding from a Christian worldview. Admittedly, Magnolia is more on the sin than the redemption side. And yet, the raw emotion on display is what makes each character so compelling.

The opening collage of coincidences too striking to be coincidences informs the interwoven stories of the characters in the film. How much coincidence is enough to push someone over the edge into believing that something greater is at work? Is it fate or something stranger?

Each of the characters has constructed a mask, built up a facade, engineered a full-body cast of concealment. They’ve been forced to do this by various circumstances, usually involving a father’s sins or misdeeds. There are the parallel stories of the “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, who’s still living off the fame from his run on the game show “What Do Kids Know?” and Stanley Spector, who’s being pushed by his father to gain the record for longest win streak on the same show. There’s John C. Reilly’s optimistic policeman, Jim, just trying to do more good than bad. There’s the intertwined relationships of Jimmy Gator, his wife Rose, and their daughter, Claudia, who’s addicted to drugs. It’s to Claudia’s house that Jim gets called for the second “disturbance” of his shift.

To me, the starkest character is Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey, whose over-the-top, hyper-masculinized bravado has men paying to hear him talk about how to “win the game” against women. Women don’t care about them, Mackey says, so why should they care about women? Just get them into bed. That’s the goal. And Mackey claims to be able to teach them how to “Seduce and Destroy.” Then there’s Frank’s step-mother, Linda. Julianne Moore’s performance is as ridiculously neurotic and emotional as Frank’s pseudonymic disguise is impervious to criticism.

But as the movie winds toward its third hour, all the facades begin to crack. It begins with Jim and Claudia promising to tell each other the truth, which all the other characters are forced to do by their circumstances. Linda can’t handle the guilt of having married Earl Partridge for his money, now that he’s dying and she thinks she really loves him. Jimmy Gator’s cancer forces him to tell his wife the truth about his indiscretions. Donnie Smith realizes that his childhood celebrity means nothing as he’s fired and spurned. He cries to Jim, who has caught him trying to break back into the store where he worked, that he has love to give!

Everything collapses, starting with my favorite scene, as frogs begin to fall from the sky. We’ve been warned that this is going to happen, as there is someone in the game show audience holding a sign that says “Exodus 8:2.” And, in the scene where Sydney Barringer falls from the building, the wires to the left of the shot are arranged in an 8 and a 2. “But if you refuse to let them go,” God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “behold, I will plague all your country with frogs.” I’d propose (though without any certainty!) that it has something to do with Aimee Mann’s final song of the soundtrack, where she sings, “Can you save me/from the ranks/of the freaks/who suspect/they could never love anyone.” (By the way, this is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time.) Clearly, all the characters are searching for some kind of salvation. But Anderson’s world is one of coincidence disguised as free choice (much like the real world). The question is whether there is, finally, any salvation.

Frank T.J. Mackey falls apart in grief, bitterness, and anger (in one of Cruise’s best performances), Linda Partridge falls apart in two suicide attempts, Donnie Smith falls apart in robbery and lovelessness. Stanley Spector, on the other hand, begins to stand up for himself and Claudia finally smiles a genuine smile. Phil Parma, played with subtle brilliance by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as always; R.I.P.), and Reilly’s Jim, are, perhaps, the only blameless ones in the film.

The human spectacle of these characters being stripped of their charades by circumstances beyond their control is the perfect illustration of how we all are convinced that we can retain even the tiniest bit of power over our own lives.

Yet all of them—as the opening stories show—are victims, in one way or another, of things that have grown too big to hide any more. Not victims in the sense that they are innocent of their actions, but in the sense that their choices and actions now control and define them. But sooner or later, we’re all found out. And that’s the terror that drives these characters to anger, suicide, reassertion of autonomy, or helpless sobbing. It’s Luther’s fear of a rustling leaf on the road. And none of them can free themselves from their choices or their helplessness.

Is it all coincidence? Is there something more? Are events driven by fate, human action and choice, or is the Hound of Heaven inescapably pursuing and circling? Will the human response be nihilism, revenge, or altruism? It’s all here, unfolding over a film that, as far as I’m concerned, is sui generis.

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