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".