A Reflection on the Cross through Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia

Theological Reflections on Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson

The 1999 film, Magnolia, is a story about humanity, but not from a human perspective. The film is well known for its ensemble cast, something Anderson has perfected in his films, most notably in Boogie Nights. Throughout the narrative, we see the intricate web connecting these otherwise isolated characters who live within disparate worlds. Gradually, the story unfolds piece by piece, so that from the audience’s perspective we can see their inter-relations with each other. Thus, on a literary level, the film is marked by a consistent use of irony, in the classical sense of a difference between the audience’s knowledge and the characters’ knowledge. In other words, irony occurs because the audience is in a god-like position of seeing how the different worlds of the characters are intertwined, while the characters themselves are oblivious to this larger framework. Irony, as we will see, plays a very important role throughout this film.

The lives portrayed in Magnolia are human lives—they are broken, disappointed, frustrated, washed-out, even hopeless. The story brings these people into situations in life that reveal their worst characteristics. A father who realizes his son’s genius decides to exploit the opportunity to gain game-show riches. The son he pressures cannot maintain his composure and still bear the weight of his father, teammates, and countless audience members who expect great things from him. A former game-show star, Donnie, who is now broke and incapable of holding a job feels compelled to steal from his current place of employment. The host of the game show is dying and tries to reach out to the daughter he abused to assuage the guilt that has plagued his life and threatens to kill him before his disease does. His daughter’s life is in tatters and so she passes the time by taking drugs as an escape from the world. This woman is met by a good cop who does not know how to understand his feelings for her, and becomes self-deprecating when he cannot fulfill his job at the level of perfection that he expects of himself. A woman who married a much older man—the producer of the game show—for riches is now distraught at the man’s death, and lashes out at everyone else due to her self-loathing. The abandoned son of this dying man has made his own fortune manipulating women and telling others how to do the same, and the discovery of his long-lost father’s death forces him to grapple with the past in painful ways.

These stories of despair and difficulty reveal a human irony, i.e., the irony of how closely our lives are interconnected without any person realizing it. Magnolia shows us that these frustrated lives are the norm. What is typical and ordinary is precisely this web of connected narratives moving toward a conclusion that no single person (or even the audience) is able to determine. Magnolia flips the concept of normality on its head by showing us the intricate complexities of human life, both in the reality of despair but also the reality of redemption and truth. Characters such as the cop and the nurse give glimpses in their own imperfect lives of what this redemption might look like, or at least begin to look like.

At the turning point of the film, we see this interconnectedness brought out explicitly. Each character, separated by space and sphere of activity, suddenly begins to sing “Wise Up,” by Aimee Mann (whose music inspired the film). They each sing, “You got / What you want / Now you can hardly stand it though,” which poignantly portrays the state of each character. The chorus line sums up the narrative up until that point in the film:

It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
'Til you wise up

As they sing, the audience becomes aware that this is a foreshadowing of their future “conversions.” The characters have not all come to grips with their lives, or if they have, they don’t know what to do about it. The very last line of the song seems to be one of defeat, but here again the seed is sown for the biggest irony of all: “No, it’s not going to stop / So just … give up.”

Magnolia is not advocating a resignation in life, an unwillingness to do anything but wallow in one’s misery and self-loathing. This may be what the characters in their limited, self-contained worlds mean when they sing “so just give up,” but the actual meaning of that mysterious line is not determined until later in the film and comes as a surprise to everyone, audience and characters both. (I suspect that the use of the song in the film by Anderson goes far beyond the original intentions of Aimee Mann, but such is the beauty of great art.) The film leaves the audience at the end of the song with the nagging suspicion that everyone is going to commit mass suicide in a kind of corporate protest against the despair of life. But far from it. What happens instead is bizarre but profound.

In a moment of silence, when the audience is waiting for new developments in the now quite complex story, frogs begin to rain from the skies. Moments before the first frog falls, a sign in the background cites Exodus 8:2, in which God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.” (There are actually dozens of references to the numbers 8 and 2 scattered throughout the film.) As the frogs fall and cause mayhem on the streets, everyone’s world is turned upside-down. Up until this point, the film appeared to be anthropocentric, in that the characters were the center of the story. Even if the characters were involved in realities outside of their control, the film gave no indication that there was anything outside of the immanent sphere of human activity. Magnolia brings the audience to the brink of nihilistic despair before completely disrupting everyone’s lives, including those watching the film in relative tranquility.

What is the meaning of the plague of frogs? Is it anything more than an anachronistic allusion to a famous fable from the Hebrew Scriptures? I suggest reading the rain of frogs theologically as a moment of divine irony, an in-breaking of the divine into the human that renders all human efforts to rectify or destroy life ineffective in comparison to the power of a transcendent, eschatological reality. Let me explain this in more detail.

A lesser director would have made the frogs purely symbolic. You know, one of those surreal moments in a “postmodern” film when something out of the ordinary happens, usually to just one character who is “special.” The “out of the ordinary” event is used by the director for its symbolic power of expressing something unique about the character or to convey the sense of hidden mysteries behind the events in the story. All of that is cliché and only works with immense artistic talent. But Anderson is fashioning a narrative that is far more grand, cosmic in scope, rich with wonders that can only be hinted at in the film itself. The rain of frogs does not merely have symbolic power; the frogs actually change the physical reality of the characters. In other words, a lesser film would show the frogs as a kind of vision or dream that metaphorically speaks of something else. Here in Magnolia, the frogs are no mere vision; they affect the lives of the people in the world. At first this seems comical, and then, when one realizes that what is on screen is actually occurring in the world of the story, it becomes frightening.

The fear evoked by the frogs is not the contrived fear of horror films or the tyrannical fear of a dictator or evil parent. Rather, it is a truly religious fear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” By that I mean the frogs are not a “natural disaster,” like a tsunami or earthquake. This is a benevolent “disaster,” or to use more biblical language, a divine judgment. Whether Anderson realizes it or not, his portrayal of divine judgment is far more biblical than most Christians preachers. God does not judge these frail, broken lives by destroying them—the “lake of fire” motif, for example—but by saving them. God rescues people, instead of leaving them in their misery or threatening them until they shape up. God does not wait for the characters to “wise up,” because as the film shows, people usually never do. We need something outside ourselves to bring us to ourselves. This is the essence of divine irony: that in the midst of human self-destruction, God acts to save; God chooses not to abandon creation but to enter into it—both in Jesus Christ and, as Magnolia portrays, through painful grace.

[As a note, I say “God” here in connection with the film because Anderson leaves us with no other option, unless we wish to domesticate the divine figure by calling it Fate or the Unknown (cf. Paul on Mars Hill). The film is clearly working from within a Judeo-Christian framework, and it does not apologize for this. Thus, I will not apologize for speaking of God, even though the film never names the source of the rain or identifies any particular religious story as its own. Theologically, I find that to be provocative: regardless of the backgrounds and beliefs of these characters, the God who is Love chooses to act graciously towards the creation by sending the blessing of rain.]

At this point, I need to clarify the complex nature of the frogs in the film. I began by speaking of the frogs as a plague, to indicate the connection with the Exodus narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures. But I want to view them as the film does (in the DVD chapter) by calling it rain, which indicates the nature of it as a blessing from the heavens. This is reinforced by the rap the cop hears from the boy who knows more than others give him credit for. Part of the rap goes as follows:
Check that ego, come off it, I’m the Prophet,
You’re living to get older with a chip on your shoulder.
He’s running from the devil, but the debt is always gaining,
When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord bring the rain in.
Many will point out that the frogs are clearly not blessings in a number of ways. They destroy private property, cause accidents on the streets, hurt unprotected people, and possibly kill some, although we never see that portrayed in the film itself so it could be mere speculation. The damage is real, and Anderson takes great pains to show its extent. But it is not destruction for the sake of destruction. It is not a graceless judgment.

Here is where the film becomes especially profound, and where we can see the depth of the story. The rain of frogs is an artistic portrayal of divine judgment in a truly Christian sense. Whereas the plague of frogs in Exodus was divine judgment in a Hebraic sense of retribution and punishment—“eye for an eye,” or as in the case of the Egyptians, the angel of death—a Christian understanding of judgment must read all divine events through the lens of Christ, who came to suffer in our place on the cross. Consequently, God does not need to punish humanity for their sins, because that punishment has already taken place at Golgotha. What happens in divine events in light of Christ is that God moves to rescue us, to take us out of the pit, out of the depths of our earthly Sheol, and place us in rightly ordered relations with others and God. Divine judgment is still a reality in the eschatological sense of the Last Judgment, but that judgment can no longer be viewed as a period of retribution for people’s sins. Such a view as is propagated by Christians is wholly un-Christian. The Last Judgment is an act of grace, because Christ is the one who judges us and He still bears the marks of the cross.

Magnolia portrays this reality in a beautiful way. When the ambulance gets into an accident and falls to one side due to the frogs, it comes to a halt at the front door of the hospital. When the game show host who sexually abused his daughter (who now hates him) is about to shoot himself in the head, a frog crashes through a skylight and knocks the gun from his hand. When Donnie tries to steal from his former workplace in desperation, a frog hits him in the face, knocking him to the asphalt below. For those characters who are not directly affected by the frogs, the rain outside serves as a visible reminder—almost sacramental in nature—of the invisible, radical transformations occurring in their hearts. Many reviewers found it far too contrived that these frogs would just happen to fall from the sky and stop people from making mistakes. But these reviewers have no awareness of divine irony. These frogs do not “just happen” to fall where they do; they fall with intention, with a divine purpose. Divine irony means that even the audience of the film is incapable of seeing the story in its fullness. We are no longer in our god-like position. Instead, we are like the characters, dependent on God’s grace.

The rain is not simply a divine disruption of people’s lives; it unites people together. Once again, judgment in the film is an act of grace. Magnolia becomes a film not only of transcendent interruption but also of immanent connection—thus, a story of redemption as well as purgation, of bringing together and tearing apart, of divine judgment and human community. Most significantly, after Donnie painfully falls to the ground, the cop drives by and helps him. Usually, for one who is stealing, a cop only makes things worse. But herein lies the genius of Anderson. The cop in the story, though fully human, also gives a glimpse of God’s love by showing what it means to forgive. In a monologue at the end of the movie, he says that sometimes people need to be put in jail, but other times they need to be forgiven. The cop, like God, knows what people need—of course, not completely, but enough to know how to care for another frail human person. The important thing to note is that wholeness follows brokenness, and redemption follows purgation, though not always, and never out of our own initiative and planning. Wholeness and redemption are always acts of grace. The film attests to a truly biblical truth: We are dependent upon God, a God who is good and loving and expresses this holy love through sometimes fearful means. In Magnolia, divine judgment unites us with others by first breaking us from ourselves.

All this talk of judgment brings me to the central theological point, which the critics will never understand: Magnolia is an eschatological film, a story that is really the Grand Story—in direct opposition to postmodernity, as the “end of Grand Stories,” according to Lyotard. As an eschatological work of art, Magnolia enters the genre of the “fantastic,” in which the characters (and the audience) are forced to grapple with the supra-natural, the transfinite, that which is incommensurate to the ordinary scope of life’s assumed limitations and possibilities. The “fantastic” thrusts us out of our ordinary existence into an extra-ordinary existence, a life of new possibilities far beyond the once-fixed actualities of our messed up lives. When we are interrupted in our downward spiral, we are transposed to a new place and given a new identity. In the midst of chaos and confusion, there is healing. This happens to almost all of the characters in unexpected ways, and it portrays the essence of “conversion,” in a truly Christian sense: not the moral reformation of our lives, but the destruction (purgation) of our old identity for the purpose of opening us up to our new identity (redemption). Both aspects, purgation and redemption, are held together in the concept of judgment. And both were accomplished on the cross.

When we die to ourselves—as Scripture tells us—we actually live. Here, too, Magnolia echoes the biblical witness. In one of the most perplexing scenes of the film, after the cop has helped Donnie recover from his fall and come clean about his life, the gun which he lost hours before suddenly falls from the sky. The film captures the biblical parable perfectly. The cop saw his identity in light of his job as a public officer. After the rain, however, his job was not nearly as important as the more human (and more holy) task of loving others. He put aside his job to help another human being. And because he died to himself, his gun was returned. Here we come to the full meaning of Aimee Mann’s song. We are called not to give up entirely and abandon any sense of life. We are instead called to “give up” ourselves in order to gain ourselves anew. We are called to “give up” our dreams (the song, “Dreams,” plays twice in the film), our jobs, our personal aspirations, our abilities, our prizes, our treasures, our very lives. And in doing so, we are promised much more.

We return now to the opening line of this reflection: Magnolia is a story about humanity, but not from a human perspective. As should be clear by now, Magnolia presents humanity as seen through God’s eyes, humanity as acknowledged by God. As those who are acknowledged by God, we are capable of living and living anew. Without such acknowledgement (and corresponding judgment), we are doomed to live pointless, meaningless lives; our existence would have no telos. Magnolia assures us that this is not the case. We live rather in the eschatological intersection of the human and the holy, the immanent and the transcendent, the mundane and the divine. In this intersection, we can affirm the divine intention for humanity to live in communion as the people of God. Such a communion find its ground for existence in the holy, divine judgment of the cross of Christ against the old—that which is condemned to pass away—for the sake of the emerging new—that which will never pass away.
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him. (2 Tim. 2:11)


timcoe said…
This is a great post. You missed my favorite line of Dixon's rap, though, which sets up the last one--

And if he's worth being hurt, he's worth bringin pain in

When the sunshine don't work, the Good Lord bring the rain in.
Thanks, Tim, for catching what I missed.

If anyone is interested in reading the full list of allusions to 8 and 2 in the film, check out the IMDb trivia page for Magnolia, and scroll down to the bottom.
byron smith said…
Thanks once more for a great review of my all-time favourite movie.

What do you make of the opening sequence about the (attempted/achieved) suicide?
My favourite film too...
I read the opening sequence as an exploration of meaning, ie the scientific view - this is all random coincidence, therefore meaningless - as opposed to the scriptural view - God is in charge, it is all saturated in meaning, we just have to see it from God's point of view (as the review makes clear).

Anderson has said a) he composed the film around the Aimee Mann songs, and b) he doesn't think he will ever make a film as good as this again. Interesting that Altman nominated him as his successor.
m@ said…
i think that this is the best film of all-time (at least the best i've watched for sure). and thank you, this is by far the most interesting and expository review i've read of it.
a. steward said…
David -

This is a very insightful engagement with what is probably my favorite movie. I watched it for probably the 6th time with some friends last night, and every time it moves me. Do you know when Anderson's new movie is coming out?
Unknown said…
I saw Magnolia when it first appeared, and was completely caught up in it. The scene in which the frogs began to fall was emotionally overwhelming. This post explains theologically what I understood only intuitively. I think it's a marvelous bit of film commentary. Thanks for it.
Christopher said…
David, wonderful commentary. Thank you. The question I was left with after watching the film was the same as one you gesture toward: Does PTA get understand what he's doing? I can't help but think that he does.
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for this reflection. Magnolia is one of my all-time favorite movies. I think it was probably one of my stepping-stones between atheism and Christianity, but I wouldn't have been able to say why, except that there was something in the mystical nature of it that touched me deeply.

You gave words and shape to a movement in my soul. Thanks.
Horselover Phat said…
This is absolutely brilliant work by the OP. You are to be commended on your efforts and how you've stitched it all together. I'm currently doing a piece on Magnolia and I might 'borrow' a few of your lines/ideas...I will, of course, reference you in my work. Thanks for an incredible piece of writing...it truly touched me.