Discussion: Magnolia


A while back I posted a blog here about finding God where you’d least expect Him – about how he seemingly takes delight in jumping out of the shadows and showing up in the unlikeliest places, making it impossible for us to defend our hearts against this God who is always catching us off our guard.

A good example of this, in my humble opinion, is a film called Magnolia.

Pete Peterson and I share a mutual love for this film. For the uninitiated, Magnolia is a movie directed by P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) that was released in 2001 and stars Tom Cruise (in one of his best and most surprisingly vulnerable roles), Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Jason Robards in one of his last performances.  It is sometimes dark, often offensive (Tom Cruise plays the part of a motivational speaker whose seminar “seduce & destroy” is one of the worst examples of misogyny in cinema), and profane.  It has also been hailed as one of the most significantly “Christian” films of our time by many religiously oriented critics.

But just because some one presumes to call it thus, is it true to say that Magnolia can be called a Christian film? That’s at least a part of what Pete and I hope to talk about here.

We know this kind of movie is not for everyone (and I fear we may get in a little hot water for talking about it here – but we welcome that kind of conversation), but it has struck a chord for Pete and I and many others. Its biblical influences are bold and undeniable, so we thought we’d invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation about a film we love and  believe is God-haunted.


JG: Let me start by saying how much I enjoy your posts, Pete!  I’ve been looking forward to having this conversation with you. So… Why is this one of your favorite films?

PP: Thanks, Jason. How long have we been talking about writing this post? A year? Where to begin, where to begin…  I wish I could remember what it was that drew me into the theater to see the movie in the first place. I don’t remember it being heavily promoted and I don’t think I’d yet seen Boogie Nights so I wasn’t lured in by the promise of more P.T. Anderson goodness. What I do know is that the prologue hooked me from the beginning and the movie didn’t let go (still hasn’t after almost ten years.)

The opening monologue sets up the entire film by suggesting that maybe there is no such thing as coincidence. Maybe everything that we feel, suffer, and do is the result of something set in motion days, weeks, years, even a lifetime before. And maybe, just maybe, the things we call coincidence, or fate, or destiny are more than that, maybe there is something or someone else at work behind the scenes, putting us together, pulling us apart, forcing us to acknowledge that we are part of something bigger and more mysterious than our myopic view of the world might suggest.

You can’t watch a story open with that kind of question without sticking around to see what kind of answer it makes in the end. I give a lot of credit to writer/director P.T. Anderson for realizing that because some of the film is so vile, some of the characters are so repugnant that I’d have been hard pressed to sit through some of it unless I believed I was going on a journey and trusted that the destination was going to be worth the bumpy ride.

I think I’ve probably seen the film twenty or thirty times now and every time I’m reduced to a sort of blubbering, whimpering fool by the time Aimee Mann sings “Save Me” and the credits roll. There are moments that are magically written, boldly unconventional, and resonant with the knell of honesty and truth. I’d love to talk about which characters and scenes have stuck with you.  I’ve got plenty of my own so I’ll let you go first.

JG: It’s hard to pick…  But still, the two moments that always hit me like a freight train are what I’ll call the second and third monologues (the first being the opening voice over that you referred to.)

The first of these comes from Earl Partridge (Jason Robards).  From his deathbed, dying of cancer, in his last moment of coherence he confesses the great sins of his life to his attending male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman). (This is an intensely emotional scene with strong language. I’ve edited but not censored, not wanting to neuter the speech of it’s emotional intensity. The use of strong language is and should only be for emphasis – and that is what happens in this scene.)

“The g—-mn regret. The g—-mn regret! And I’ll die. Now I’ll die, and I’ll tell you what…the biggest regret of my life…. What did I do? I’m 65 years old. And I’m ashamed… don’t ever let anyone ever say to you… you shouldn’t regret anything. Don’t do that! Don’t. You regret what you f—ing want. Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, anyway you want. You can use it, okay? Oh God. This is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral…story, I say. Love. Love. Love. This f—ing life…oh oh….it’s so f—ing hard. So long. Life ain’t short. It’s long. It’s long g—-mmit… What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? Phil, Phil, help me. Please. What did I do?”

Such remorse for sin and failure… I’ve seen few movie scenes get it as right as this one does.

The second monologue concerns itself, interestingly, with grace, as if to answer the one before it.  It comes from John C. Reilly’s character, police officer Jim Kurring – the Christian character in the film. Kurring is a “good man” – arguably too good.  But even for how self-righteous and myopic he is, we still love him and his character provides the film’s strongest redemptive moments. He is the heart of the movie.

And yet he’s also deeply flawed. I cringe every time I see the scene where he’s out on the date with Claudia, who in a moment of great bravery makes a confession to him.  Her statement includes a cuss word, and unfortunately Kurring gets hung up on this and he criticizes her use of strong language. Though he is a good man, his self-righteousness blinds him to the heart of what she has said and what it cost her to say it.  I’m so guilty of this very kind of thing, which is why it hurts whenever I see it. I remember many years ago our pastor’s wife warning me that we can be in danger of being so heavenly that we’re no earthly good, and this scene is a convicting reminder of this.

Later in the film, Officer Kurring is faced with a moment where he has to make a judgement call and either uphold the law at all costs like a modern day Javert, or offer grace in the form of a second chance.  Officer Kurring’s monologue (to us? To himself? To God?):

“A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to. Take a lunch hour. . .job’s over. Something like that. But it’s a 24-hour deal. No two ways about it. And what most people don’t see…is just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call that that’s a judgment call on them but that’s not what I do. And that’s not what should be done. I have to take everything and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. (long pause) And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part, making that call. (long pause) I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I’m gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive?  Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street.”

I worry these monologues lack some of their punch by being taken out of context. But I assure you, that after you see the damage that Partridge’s sin has done to his despicable son (Tom Cruise), his plea to “use your regret” carries weight. And after watching nearly three hours of a film of people who are dying for lack of grace, Kurring’s closing monologue is deeply affecting.

PP: Jason Robard’s performance in that scene is heartbreaking. You can hear death and sickness rattling in his throat as he’s coughing up those confessions and it’s harrowing. I think part of what is so great about that scene is that it’s the opposite of the usual Hollywood lie. How many times do we hear someone on a screen tell us to take the good, take the bad, live for today, forget tomorrow, and don’t regret a moment of it? Not only is that not good advice, it’s not reality. We all live with regrets. I have regrets that are twenty years old and they still keep me awake some nights. But I’m also afraid of who I might be if I didn’t regret those things. The difference between me (us) and Earl Partridge is that I can rest in the assurance that while my regrets may yet haunt me, I forgive, and am forgiven. To carry the weight of that kind of regret is a terrible thing, and it will wreck us if we try to go it alone. Which is, I think, a major theme in the movie.

One of my favorite scenes is also one of the most bizarre. There’s a spot about two-thirds through when we’ve learned how disastrous all the characters’ lives are and they’re each arriving at a moment of transition. At this critical point in the movie, the director, P.T. Anderson, makes a wildly unconventional choice and briefly turns his film into, of all things, a musical. The song is by Aimee Mann (who I love and who is all over the soundtrack) and it’s called “Wise Up”. While the sad, almost lament-like song plays, the camera cuts from one character to another as they all join in to sing. It sounds incredibly goofy. In fact, it probably is goofy. But it hooks me every time I see it. The song pulls the disparate narratives of each character together and forces the viewer to consider what they’ve come to in their lives, what choices have brought them there, and it forces us to wonder what choices they will make going forward. It’s strange and beautiful and I don’t recall seeing anything quite like it in any another film. Love, love, love it.

Here’s the song:

It's not
What you thought
When you first began it
You got
What you want
You can hardly stand it though,
By now you know

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

You're sure
There's a cure
And you have finally found it
You think
One drink
Will shrink you 'til you're underground
And living down

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

Prepare a list of what you need
Before you sign away the deed

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

No, it's not going to stop
'Til you wise up
No, it's not going to stop
So just...give up

The first time I heard the song, the last line bothered me. I read that “give up” as advice to throw in the towel and stop trying, as if she was saying life’s not going to get better, life sucks, it’s not going to stop, just give up and accept it. But the more I thought about it, and the more I’ve watched that scene in the movie, the more certain I am that that isn’t what she’s saying at all. She’s telling the characters, telling us, to give up our pride, to give up fighting the people that love us, to give up holding onto our pain and mourning our brokenness. Because if we can give up all that, then we’ll finally be free to wise up and move forward. Great song, great scene.

JG: I agree with you – that was a great scene! One of the things I love about this film is that it takes a lot of chances. The scene you referenced is a scene that stretches the boundaries of what should work, and at any moment it could fall apart!  But it doesn’t (in my opinion). And this is not the only instance of Anderson pushing our credulity to its limits, is it?  I won’t give it away, but there is the infamous scene in the movie that is a “love it or hate it” moment.  I land on the side of loving it.

For those who plan to see it someday, I’ll try to not give it away, but let’s just say an event of biblical proportions happens, and in fact if you look close, just before it happens Anderson tips his hand by having the scripture reference show up on a gas station reader board.

Interesting trivia bit: there’s a novelty Christian folk duo called Lost & Found who has played colleges for years and the one guy with the big hair lives in Hollywood. The story goes that he was at the same party as P.T. Anderson one night who approached him because he heard he was a Christian and asked him if he could help him find the scripture reference. Crazy.

But we’re talking about Aimee Mann right now, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite artists. My understanding is that Anderson and Mann are friends and after hearing demos of her new songs he was so inspired that he wrote the script as a story to go with her soundtrack.

The final song in the film features what I love best about Mann – well crafted lyrics that leave you longing for redemption.  Aimee is not a Christian artist, but I’ve always felt that her music is a great primer for the gospel because of it’s honest depiction of what’s broken in all of us.

The final song, “Save Me” begins:

“You look like the perfect fit”

Oh, it sounds like it’s going to be a sweet love song… but wait, in classic Aimee Mann style she turns the phrase and breaks our hearts:

“for a girl in need of a tourniquet

So won’t you save me

Come on and save me…”

This song is played over the final “redemption scene”, and in the context of the story is quite beautiful.

Another interesting trivia tidbit: the character of Claudia, the drug addict girl who was abused by her father, was based on P.T. Anderson’s then girlfriend Fiona Apple. You’ll notice too that at the end of the film, all of the characters find some form of redemption – except for the abusive father.  As the god of the world of Magnolia, Anderson deliberately denied the father a chance at redemption because he deemed the sin he enacted upon his daughter as unforgivable. The film can almost be seen as a love letter to Apple.

Let’s talk about why some people have claimed this as a significantly religious film in spite of it’s well-earned R-rating and some of it’s offensive content.  Any thoughts?

PP: There are a few reasons, I think. The most obvious being the references to Exodus 8:2 and 20:5 which are sprinkled throughout the film. More substantively though, is the idea that maybe coincidence is a myth, and if it is, if nothing happens merely by chance, then the engine of this vast conspiracy is something worth our consideration.

I think that one of the film’s primary themes is the nature of causality in our world. It demonstrates a destructive snowball effect that causes generations of consequence to pile up in our lives until we’re crippled under its weight and desperate for relief. The price of that relief is that we have to suffer ourselves to be loved. We have to forgive and allow ourselves to be forgiven and, in the case of the Jimmy Gator character, it’s also important to note that what he never learns is that forgiveness usually comes at the cost of confession.

One of the most beautiful things about the film is that Jim Kurring, the police officer, who might be seen as symbolic of the Law, chooses against all logic to offer unconditional love to Claudia who is an addict, a criminal, a person so broken that she cannot conceive of being worthy of anyone’s love, so much less a policeman’s.

Isn’t that the Gospel? That, impossibly, we’re loved?

JG: The final scene, the payoff, the moment of redemption, is a glance (at the audience? At the man behind the camera: God?) and a smile.  Is it enough of a redemptive moment for the pain we’ve been asked to feel and the muck we’ve been drug through?  Some people I know say it isn’t, but it’s enough for me.  What about you?  And I’d love to hear what you think the moment means or what kind of promise it holds.

PP: Man, that ending seals the deal for me. I love movies that end by putting a question in your mind rather than a straight answer (Shutter Island, Blade Runner, and 2001 all come to mind). I think the best art is properly a question because it involves the audience and requires them to become a part of the work. I think that’s what Anderson is doing here. He’s asking us to look at what we’ve learned about all these desperate people and see how love and forgiveness can take root and renew.

One of the characters, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (played by William H. Macy) says in tears near the end of the film, “I really do have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it.” With the final shot of Claudia’s smile, Anderson is telling us where to put it. He’s asking that we give it to the ruined person in front of us and then just watch and see what happens. And as the narrator says in the beginning, “Are we really to believe that this is all merely a matter of chance?

Anderson’s answer is a smile.

Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".


  1. Andrew Peterson

    What a great conversation. I’ve seen Magnolia several times, and am moved to tears–not just watery eyes, mind you, but ugly-cry tears–every time. What surprises me is that it’s different scenes that punch me in the gut with each viewing.

    Now, I’m certain not everyone here should see this film. As we’ve discussed ad nauseam in these parts, people experience art differently and have different levels of tolerance for certain kinds of content. Even someone with a high tolerance for language will squirm in this film. But it’s there on purpose. Tom Cruise’s character is as vile as anything I’ve seen on film (and I agree, Jason, it was a brave part for him to play), but you see in the end that it isn’t flippant or gratuitous. It leads somewhere. And where it leads is heartbreaking and redemptive.

    P.T. Anderson may not be a Christian, but he is, you know, a human. That means he’s living in this broken world, just like we are, and, praise God, he’s not squandering his obvious gift for storytelling on high-adrenaline action flicks. He’s asking questions. I’m convinced that the only way to create a film like this one is to point the camera deep, deep into the shadowy dregs of one’s heart and to bravely tell about the emptiness there. But Anderson, in a startling display of common grace, comes up after the harrowing journey with that smile on Claudia’s face at the end of the film. Anderson didn’t intend it, but Jesus Himself is an invisible character in this film. He haunts it. It’s as if the silence of every question of every character in this story is begging to be filled by His voice.

    It probably seems like we’re making too much of the film. Maybe we are. If you decide to watch it, take a deep breath, prepare to be shaken up, and remember as it plays that everyone you meet on the street, at work, in your neighborhood, has experienced in some degree the anger, sorrow, emptiness, and self-hatred these characters embody. This is the world we inhabit. May we never forget that Christ stepped into that dank river, swallowed it up, and even now pours living water into us that we may lift the cup of compassion to thirsty lips.

  2. sid

    Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love have been two of my favorites for its quirkiness, humor, drama and storytelling. It’s not afraid to look deep into the soul and look at the messiness of life without trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.

    When I asked friends what they think, both Christians and non Christians, they mostly gave the response ‘it was too depressing’. I would say, OK, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Thats a surface level response. Does that mean you connected with it in some way, which is good, or was it just weird and you didn’t connect with it?

    What I find good is something that connects with me as a human being. It is not a cause for depression of self-beration, but a cause to celebrate. Its a kinship I have with my fellow travellers and also the stuff of questions, forgivness, reconciliation, overcoming and being in the moment.

    So thats why I liked it with all its messiness and brutal honesty. It;s the stuff of real life, of questions, of honesty and thank God, hope.

  3. Dan Foster

    Man, this is why I read RabbitRoom! Thanks for the great conversation. It’s been many years since I’ve seen Magnolia. Having read in World magazine that it was vulgar but more “Christian” than most movies, I wanted to see it and finally rented it with my wife. She was definitely turned off by the obscenity (which is relentless, by the way) and understandbly had a hard time getting past that. I thought it was intriguing. Your conversation makes me want to go back and see it again.

  4. Josiah Roelfsema

    I have watched the movie three times now. I suspect I will own it sometime soon, partly as a consequence of reading about it here. Thanks for the reminder.

    I have long wondered whether artists, and particularly movie-makers, in these times intentionally “dirty” up their works so that those who are not willing to take them seriously don’t get the message. In this case, they don’t get the grace. But that seems to be precisely the point here. If you don’t confess the dirt, you don’t get the grace. Not only does Anderson make that point directly in the movie; it is also present in the very way he uses his medium.

  5. Jesse D

    Magnolia’s amazing, undoubtedly. As far as heart-wrenching beauty and dark grace goes, it’s as good as anything written by Flannery O’Conner.

  6. Curt McLey

    Jason and Pete, thanks so much for this discussion. Andy, Sid, Dan, Josiah, and Jesse D., thanks also for your comments which are thought provoking and interesting, and also reflect some of my own thoughts about this film. This discussion is a prototype of the kinds of discussions that truly belong in The Rabbit Room. As it took courage to produce and release such a film, so it takes courage to discuss it among believers, and for our proprietor to allow it.

    Self-righteousness is the cornerstone of the ugly wall—which also contains large measures of pride and arrogance—that prevents understanding, truth, and ultimately redemption from getting through. Wise Up perfectly reflects the heart of this film, particularly the last line. “Give up.” I think it’s talking about surrender; surrender to the truth, the truth about life, love, ourselves, and God. The truth of, let me just say it, the Gospel.

    Never scaling that wall, we are safe. But safe from from what? And why is safety such an important consideration? Are we afraid we are going to die? What. Before redemption, we are already dead.

    The chapter of Exodus 8 is about hardened hearts, which is also a key to appreciating this film and why the frogs are more relevant than many viewers (including Roger Ebert, who loved the film) may have thought. If you are scratching your head after watching this film, read Exodus 8 and you may find some light.

    I am not a guy that generally likes to watch movies again and again, but I’ve seen this one many times, because it is so important, candid, and so true. Thanks Pete and Jason. What a great post.

  7. Trey Chandler

    I love this movie, and agree that it is hard to watch at times. But, would Cruise and Robard’s final scene together be as powerful if the worst sin Cruise ever committed from his brokenness was to say “butt” in basketball practice?

    Thanks for this discussion.

  8. Ryan

    I thought the smile at the end of this film was one of the most optimistic, uplifting things I’ve seen in a movie. It was so slight, but conveyed so much.

  9. Aaron Alford

    I love it when I find out that one of my favourite films of all time is also loved by some of my favourite artists. I’m overdue for another viewing of Magnolia. I’m a huge fan of being left bawling by the power of grace. If a movie, or a song, can make me do that, I’m hooked for life.

    We seldom know how beautiful brokenness is. A face puffed with tears, bloodshot eyes, a snotty nose, and a broken smile. There’s nothing more lovely.

  10. David H

    I have always felt closer to people who have nothing but questions than those who have all the answers. It so often seems that the latter group have to expend an inordinate amount of effort making everything fit right and, as a result, often angrily oppose not only the questions that confront their answers but those who ask them. That angry opposition, as I have experienced in my life, has seemed most un-Christlike.

    As to the question of whether the film is Christian, I have to wonder what is gained with an answer one way or the other. Concepts that very much resemble the Christian God are obviously there. Issues of grace and love and and forgiveness and salvation are at the very heart of the film. Jesus doesn’t have a speaking role, but he is clearly there for those that have eyes to see. But did the filmmaker intend that as a conclusive, definitive answer or merely the entree to other questions? Which is better for a world fed up with the self-righteous, self-serving answer for everything that has come to represent so much of American Christianity?

    The first time I saw “Magnolia,” the phrase that kept repeating in my mind was: “In the world, but not of it.” The policeman seemed to believe he was the epitome of that, but everyone else saw him as a joke or a hypocrite waiting to happen. He was only living the second part of the admonition. When he broke the law he stepped into the world. The question then became how he would live there.

    His answer came in the form of another question: “What can you forgive?” Before he stepped into the world the answer was NOTHING; if you broke the law you went to jail. After he had to figure out how to deal with the uncertain demands of grace.

    None of that may “sanctify” the movie. But Jesus said: “…whoever is not against us is for us.”

    He followed that up with a very difficult to interpret statement that is echoed elsewhere in the Gospels (including Matt 25:31-46). “I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”

    Not every question has an easy answer. Many may not have an answer that can even be understood within human limitations. It isn’t that I like better those who keep asking the questions. I just have more in common with them.

  11. Josh B

    I’m guessing I’m in the minority here, but I have a hard time convincing myself that movies like this, with so much ugliness and sin, feature Christ as an “invisible character”, Scripture references aside. (Disclaimer: I’ve never seen Magnolia, but I’ve seen movies like it.) I can understand where the review and some of the comments are coming from, but personally, I don’t see movies of broken people as being like those little “negative space Jesus signs” where you see the word “Jesus” by the hole that’s left in the middle of all the little wooden pieces. For me, all bleak movies show is that yes, the world (and me) are inherently broken, but that’s where it ends. A lot of movie critics use the words, but I have a hard time drawing the connection between a story about “sin” and “redemption” and the Story about Sin and Redemption. I’m not saying you can’t take something of value from a film like this, but to me, it’s not “the gospel” if it doesn’t have the central thing to the Gospel, the cross of Christ. Dwelling on my own sins and the sins of the world isn’t going to show me the One who defeated sin; that’s why I need to fix my eyes on him instead of the ugliness. Whenever I see a movie like this, I always think of Jesus, too, but I can’t help but think it’s because I’m already a Christian and I’m seeing Jesus because he’s in my heart, not because he’s in the movie, if that makes any sense. I think there was an old discussion on this here a while back, but I guess I’m not one of those people who sees the Gospel in every movie about sin, grace, redemption, or what have you. They might remind me of it, but only because it’s a story I know already. Without knowing Jesus, I’m not sure I’d be reminded of Jesus by movies like this at all. Good discussion, though.

  12. Rushmore

    For me the vast majority of memorable art – songs, movies, paintings – comes from a place of deep pain, doubt and fear. Perhaps above all, great art comes from asking hard questions.

    And secondly I’d add that – for me at least – those hard questions I want art to explore have to be asked honestly and without flinching. It’s no good giving me a movie, song or book with easy setups, cardboard characters or straw men that fall short of really addressing core human issues. That’s – for example – why many including yours truly loathed a movie like Avatar: beautiful to look at but absolutely chock-full of A to B plot points and predictable, unrealistic setups and resolutions.

    Which brings me around to movies like Magnolia, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man and so on. There are hard, unflinching, real questions being asked in these oddly and disturbingly beautiful works; questions for the which the writers / directors clearly didn’t have pat answers available. Often I’m left wishing I could talk – really talk – with the writers who have all of the hard questions exactly, perfectly right but have none – zero – of the One True Answer at all.

    And while I sympathize to a great degree with Josh B above, I’ll probably still attend the next Coen movie or Costello concert and enjoy their work on one level. But I also think that’s why I appreciate AP, Shive, Gullahorn et al so much more: honest, direct, real openness without the ultimately empty despair at the end. There’s something very uplifting about asking painful questions but finally being able to offer real hope.

  13. Jason Gray


    Hey Josh,

    I get your perspective – and I know the danger of us artist or reflective types is that we can be so in love with our own pain and depression that we gravitate to it like moths to a flame, extolling it’s virtues while it singes us.

    And I think you’re right in that the movie has little value as a ministry tool – which would reduce it to evangelistic propaganda. But I don’t think we should expect movies to work as conversion tools. However, they can still be so valuable as contributing to a cultural conversation about the gospel. I heard a quote once that I love that goes like this: perhaps Jesus didn’t come to answer our questions as much as he came to question our answers.

    And I think there is value to films or other art forms that cause us to question our answers.

    A mentor of mine told me years ago that though the adage is true that you can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink, it’s also true that you can make him thirsty by mixing some salt in his oats.

    I wonder if a film like Magnolia accomplishes this. I know it does for me, it reminds me of my own regret and makes me feel my thirst for grace – and these seem to me to be two of the major themes of this film: regret and grace.

    And that’s what I mean when I say it’s God haunted – not that God is the star (competing for top billing with Tom Cruise), but that He’s in the background, sneaking in and out of scenes… making us long for a clearer view of him. And our prayer is that this longing that a film like this might create will bug a person like a pebble in their shoe until they give their attention to it.

    Flannery O’Connor talks about how when you’re talking to the hard of hearing, you must shout and make dramatic motions with your hands in order to be heard. I think a film like Magnolia may be too “loud” for some with a sensitive kind of hearing. But for others, the sheer force of it (the vileness of the characters, the language, the desperate situations) is what will help them to “hear” what’s being communicated.

  14. Randall Goodgame

    I love this movie, I was so moved by the characters and the honest portrayal of the struggle to be human, and yet I was also really disturbed. I wonder if it resonates with some more than others because of the rest of the gunk some choose to expose themselves to. We watch Jackass and The Hangover and Desperate Housewives (a favorite in my house), pretending we can leave unaffected. How could all these kinds of entertainment not leave a residue behind, dulling the sensitivity of our spirits the way spicy food eventually dulls the tongue.

    I wonder if Magnolia is like a habanero chili pepper…too much for those whose eyes and ears have not already been overexposed.

  15. David H

    P.T. Anderson, according to many accounts, did not begin writing “Magnolia” with any thoughts of religious overtones. The amphibian event in the film was not inspired by a biblical reference (that was written in after the script was mostly done) but by the work of Charles Fort, who wrote books about scientifically inexplicable events.

    Anderson has been fairly circumspect on what the movie is about, telling Charlie Rose during an interview that a) “none of us could figure it out, it’s too hard to describe” and b) he could go on all day with the subject. He concludes: “Let’s just say here’s who is in it….”

    But quite plainly the film is an exploration of failure, regret, forgiveness and, in the end, the prospect of redemption that defies any sense of propriety. Some might call that grace.

    In speaking about the film Anderson once said that the character of the police officer was a picture of moral certainty that was alien and yet attractive to him.

    “It’s a little embarrassing to say, ‘No, I’m not up to the moral place that someone like Jim Kurring is.’ I’m trying, and maybe by writing it down it’ll get me there faster.”

    At the time he stumbled across the Ex. 8 reference that appears repeatedly in the film, Anderson said he was “going through a weird, personal time”, and he started to understand “why people turn to religion in times of trouble, and maybe my form of finding religion was reading about [a supernatural event] and realizing that makes sense to me somehow”.

    It seems clear that with this film Anderson, who both wrote and directed, made a public record of his personal search to understand something he longed for. Wonderfully and terribly he comes to the brink of a place familiar to many Christians but stops on the doorstep.

    Much of the condemnation for this film emanates from the ugliness and profanity that pervades it. Everyone in the film, with the possible exception of the police officer and male nurse, are terribly flawed people who have fallen far.

    But all of them, save one, is forgiven by the film’s end. I can’t help but think the impact of that would have been lessened by white-washing their failings.

    More important, the seaminess in the film is not just a cinematic contrivance. Various accounts have Anderson referencing the sexual abuse by her father of Fiona Apple, his girlfriend at the time, in the creation of some characters. Other ugly and actual events are said to have leavened his script, making the story in some ways an exploration of the terrible things people really do to themselves and others.

    Maybe we could all be righteously incensed if he had simply looked at the putrid insides and outsides of corrupt people bathing in filth. But regardless of Anderson’s hedging in interviews, that just isn’t what the film is about.

    If nothing else, the movie is about hope. Toward the end of the “Magnolia” trailer the words appear: “People fall down. People look up.” They don’t pick themselves out of the mire, they don’t bootstrap themselves to salvation. They need something outside of themselves and are looking for it.

    Jason says, above, that movies like this don’t work as tools of conversion. I agree. This movie in particular isn’t evangelistic, at least in part, because the person who created it clearly sees himself as a seeker rather than a shepherd. He doesn’t stand with the ninety-and-nine. Maybe that’s why he has such an amazing sense of how lost people can be.

    But I might quibble about whether there is any “ministry” that can come from the movie. Anderson and his film are unintentionally analogous to the namesake character of a well-known parable who acted in a way his betters felt was beneath them and, in the process, taught everyone something unconscionable about God.

    The spiritual teaching of “Magnolia” may be mostly for those of us who are “saved” and need reminders of what it felt like to receive a gift both unearned and undeserved.

  16. Andrew Peterson

    Thanks for the great insights, David! (I don’t employ exclamation points lightly.)

    I wanted to correct something Jason alluded to earlier. A few years ago my friend George, a Christian singer/songwriter in L.A. who knows P.T. Anderson, told me he got a late night phone call from Anderson asking where the plague of frogs passage was. He was working on a script for a new film and needed to know, pronto. George, who in his Hollywood circle of friends is known as “the Christian guy”, pointed him in the right direction, and the rest is history.

    I heard it from the horse’s mouth.

  17. Jason Gray


    No!! Say it isn’t so! It wasn’t the big hair dude from Lost and Found? Are you sure he didn’t have something in some way to do with it?

    I’m sorry, but it’s just a better story if the scripture came from the Lost and Found folk singer dude…

    And David, yes – good thoughts, thanks for sharing. I’m amazed at the number of responses on this. I would have thought that Magnolia is a pretty obscure film that most people here hadn’t seen. It’s gratifying to see that I was mistaken…

  18. David H

    I don’t watch “Jackass” or “Desperate Housewives” because they seem far too contrived. I reluctantly admit to watching “The Hangover,” but thought the end ruined the whole thing. My daughter put it in these terms: “I might have been OK with it if those guys had learned anything from their experience.”

    I don’t like movies or TV that are simply ugly or dirty. I do like things that are emotionally or intellectually demanding in some way. Some of my church friends insist I like depressing films best, but I like to think I prefer those that challenge me to think, especially after they are over. (One of my favorites is the 2001 film “No Man’s Land” about one of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.)

    “Magnolia” was a movie that hit me in the head, the heart and the gut. I have met too many other people who have even seen it, much less liked it.

  19. Josh B

    Jason: Thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t trying to say the movie needs to work as a conversion tool, much less that art needs to be “evangelistic propaganda” for it to have value. Far from it. God knows that there’s plenty of art that resonates with me (for reasons I don’t always understand) that I wouldn’t consider as having much ministry value at all, if any. Sometimes it’s just because it reminds me of what it means to be human, with all the good and bad that entails. Your comment that the movie could serve as a starting point for a cultural conversation about the gospel is one I agree with, though. What I was trying to say was that you can accentuate the “pebble in the shoe” for people, but if it never goes any further than that starting point, they’re missing out on the best part of the Story. I often find myself having thoughts echoing Randall Goodgame’s sentiments about the things I put into my mind. I’m not sure that makes me someone who is “righteously incensed” as David puts it, though, or some kind of Pharisee for not “getting it” when it comes to the value of stuff like this; and I hope it didn’t come across that way. All it means is that it’s not my cup of tea.

  20. Jason Gray


    Not at all, Josh – and I hope I didn’t come off as critical of your comment. I totally agree with you. Reading it again, I can see that it maybe sounded like I was correcting you or something… I didn’t mean to sound that way – I was mostly talking to myself.

    I do know that there have been times where in my enthusiasm for a movie like Magnolia I have embraced it as this amazing place where God reveals himself, and I champion it as such, even getting evangelistic about it by trying to get other people to have the same experience that I did. But the truth of it may be that God just chose to reveal himself to me in some moment, even in spite of the movie. I’m so guilty of that… and then in my enthusiasm I have extolled the virtue of this or that film/work of art as a revealer of God, and in some degree a tool for conversation. It really gets bad when I degrade into the mindset of saying, “if you can’t see what I see in this, you’re a fool!”

    But more and more I see these things – films like Magnolia, music like Aimee Mann’s, etc. – at best as God’s salting the oats (assuming he’s involved at all), and when he makes his presence known to me in a film like Magnolia I’m less inclined to force other people to see what I see in it and more inclined to just be grateful that God chose to speak to me.

    Josh, you’re so gentle and humble in your remarks, I really appreciate that about you, thank you.

  21. Peter B

    Wow. I’m glad to have read this, but I feel like I’ve been spoilered (which may be good because maybe I don’t want to watch the film; I’m not sure). Oddly enough, a family member described the “Wise Up” sequence to me when introducing me to Aimee Mann. Another one to add to the playlist.

    Really, though, the overwhelming question this movie prompts is a simple one: why would Phillip Seymour Hoffman play a character named Phil?

  22. David H

    I apologize to Josh and others if I came off as harsh. I know a film like “Magnolia” isn’t for everyone and certainly don’t feel people should be forced to watch it for their own heavenly or earthly good.

    Just this week, in concluding a Sunday School class on The Sermon on the Mount, we discussed whether judgement and discernment were synonymous terms. Many Christians I know tend to use them interchangeably. I don’t think they mean the same thing.

    Judgement is a terminal event. It is a conclusion. Once something or someone is judged, it’s fate is decided and it can be disposed of. Discernment can be a place of beginning. Rather than a decision, discernment can bring understanding. Jesus, in that great “sermon,” urged quite a bit of caution about judgement. Discernment, Matt 10:16 and 1 Cor 10:23 seem to say, is critical to following Christ.

    Christians can be discerning about things without judging the thing or, most especially, the people in and around it. If I judge them there is little chance of a relationship without them accepting my view. Discernment does not require that pre-requisite. I may not like what they are into or even want to have anything to do with that thing, but relationship with the people can (and should) still happen. And, as Jesus so often demonstrated, that relationship can lead to change.

    But beyond that, I know I have a tendency to look at some things simply because they are rejected by my spiritual brothers and sisters.

    I grew up in judgmental churches where I was constantly warned about the “Devil” in the world who was trying to lure me into pits and traps. When the movie, “The Life of Brian” came out people at my church had meetings and participated in demonstrations about that awful film. I was a teen, so of course I went to see it. Much to my amazement, Jesus was an actual character in the film and he was treated with respect — even reverence. Organized religion, especially when coupled with willful ignorance, were the butt of the jokes.

    A few years later in my life, I came to realize that my father — a one-time pastor and very vocal moralist — was one of the biggest devils I would ever meet in my life. He was a wolf who used religion, propriety and the appearance of spirituality as sheep clothing.

    The upside to those influences is that I often delve deeply in the search for truth about the world and my faith. The downside is I can be somewhat reactionary towards anyone who seems to be saying: “Don’t look.”

    That can be very judgmental. I need to be more discerning.

  23. Pete Peterson

    When I read this:

    “When the movie, “The Life of Brian” came out people at my church had meetings and participated in demonstrations about that awful film.”

    My brain thought you said “Brain’s Song” and nearly exploded.

  24. Jimmy

    Re: the song… you’re right that it’s a very strong and important part of the film… very much a turning point for everyone BUT I think your interpretation of the last line of the song is wrong. I think she is saying “give up” literally and that doesn’t make it a bad, non-christian, thing. Look at Job and his lamentations that end with wishing he were never born. Christians are allowed to express frustrations and “give up”.

    Also, to say that it doesn’t speak of forgiveness to the father that abused his daughter isn’t quite accurate… during the “act of biblical proportion” he does receive some divine intervention.

    Indeed though, the monologue about regret is one of the strongest scenes in a film I’ve seen and the last scene of the film is perfect (and stolen by Lost in Translation).

  25. David H

    @ Pete — One town in the UK didn’t lift their ban on “The Life of Brian” until March of last year, 30 years after the film was released. In Sweden the film was marketed as so funny it was banned in Norway. The movie is still listed in many places as one of the most controversial ever made.


    U.S. objections to the movie, which wasn’t about a white football hero contracting an incurable disease, were not quite as long-standing, but still pretty strident. The Catholic film-monitoring office rated Brian “C” for “Condemned,” which they said made it a sin to see the film. Robert EA Lee of the Lutheran Council, on his nationwide radio show, called “Brian” “crude and rude mockery, colossal bad taste, profane parody. A disgraceful assault on religious sensitivity.”

    Read Wikipedia to get the full flavor of the opposition in England, Scotland and Ireland. What struck me most from that was the debate featuring two Pythons (Cleese and Palin) vs Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark. Both Cleese and Palin had a great deal of respect for Muggeridge prior to that meeting. MM admitted afterwards that he had missed the first 15 minutes of the movie and, as a result, thought Brian was supposed to be Jesus.

    During the debate, Palin said they had wanted to make a movie about Christ but: “The more we read about Jesus and the background of his life, the more we decided that there was very little to ridicule in Jesus’ life.”

  26. Canaan Bound

    So was it Michael Bridges or George Baum??? I grew up on Lost and Found…they are favs. 🙂

  27. Ryan

    After skimming this post on the movie, “Magnolia,” I put it on my list of movies to watch in the near future. I watched it last night and am thankful that I did. This morning I thoroughly read this post and the comments. Thanks to many of you who have so eloquently put into words what I thought and felt as I watched the movie.

    I had an unexpected experience yesterday as it relates to my watching of “Magnolia.” Earlier in the day I had watched a short video clip of Steve Saint talking about the fact that he lost his father when he was a young boy. His father, Nate Saint, was one of five Christian missionaries that were killed in 1956 as they were sharing the gospel with a savage tribe in South America. Long story short, God made up the difference in the most unimaginable way and Steve Saint, who is now a 60 year old man, thanks God for the powerful and Godly influence of his father’s life.

    In “Magnolia” I was struck over and over again with the significant impact that the parent’s lives, decisions and behaviors had on their children. As I contrasted the two stories that I experienced yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice how that there is something much more to being a parent than just being present. The lives of parents, whether short-lived or long-lived, have a tremendous impact upon their children (Exodus 20:5-6).

    Anyway, …I have many profitable “take-aways” from watching the movie “Magnolia” and from reading this blog. This was just one of them.

  28. Sarah Partain

    I love this movie and have, since its 2000 release. It’s my favorite for a few reasons: I love that a songwriter could write a group of songs that would go on to inspire the stories of Magnolia. I think that the end line of “Wise Up” means for them to let go of all that they have been going through…surrender to what they have been fighting. I feel that that also corresponds with the Bible verse and the unexpected twist. I love the intense stories that build and culminate in redemption. The feeling in your gut is so powerful at the end, proving how amazing a composition it is.
    The cop is totally the God figure and I feel that the gospel is so rich in this movie, even though it is so vulgar at parts.
    Thanks for this post. I will forward this to friends as it explains why I love it so much, better than I could have.

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