This is an important article for me. Because Magnolia is, like…my favorite movie. Ever. It was the movie that kickstarted my love of cinema. I’ve been infatuated with Paul Thomas Anderson ever since, and have always loved writing about his movies. But never once have I written an extensive explanation of the themes and motifs on display in Magnolia.
This article won’t be able to cover every single little aspect of the film—I don’t think there’s enough space on the internet for that venture. But I do believe there are three main themes that can be explored and understood through a series of shots I put together. I scrubbed through the entire movie and found ten visual moments I believe sum up Magnolia’s aesthetic. Those shots are split between three sections:
- Coping with the randomness of life
- Society’s collective abuse of children
- The importance of overcoming loneliness
In exploring these themes and observing the images that accompany them, I believe we can form a holistic understanding of what Magnolia is about. As a result, I believe the movie will transcend and become more rewarding to watch. Heck, you may even learn to love it as much as I do.
So let’s dig in.
Coping with the randomness of life
Paul Thomas Anderson wastes no time setting up this theme in Magnolia. The film starts with three stories about massive coincidence. In the first coincidence, three men named Joseph Green, Stanley Berry, and Daniel Hill take the life of a man who happens to be from…Greenberry Hill, London. In the second, a water bomber pilot named Craig Hansen takes his own life after giving a man a heart attack when he accidentally scooped him out of the water. The scuba diver, Delmer Darion, just happened to be a blackjack dealer that Hansen had attacked two nights earlier. And in the third, a mother fired a shotg*n at her husband, only to miss. Her blast, however, just happened to strike her son as he was passing by the window trying to take his own life.
After detailing all three events, the narrator then says:
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “Something That Happened.” This cannot be “One of Those Things… ” This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time.
This quote was taken directly from the set script for Magnolia. You know how much Anderson is stressing this point of “randomness” and “chance” by his use of capitalization. The way he stresses phrases like “This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance” sounds like a paranoid person stressing about the coincidences of life. You could imagine someone saying: “These things don’t just happen…there HAS to be a way to explain all of this!!”
You wouldn’t believe how much coincidences consume people. There’s an entire article about the topic here on Psychology Today. Here’s one key entry:
In states of psychosis, people tend to develop blatantly false, unshakable beliefs or delusions, which can range from the plausible yet mistaken to the extremely bizarre. The most common are referred to as “delusions of self-reference.” These self-deceptions involve the belief that unrelated, coincidental, or innocuous events, actions, or objects refer to the individual in a personal way. In psychotic states, people have difficulty dismissing unremarkable events as merely coincidental—everything seems loaded with personal significance, leading to paranoia or grandiosity. They present all kinds of evidence that they consider irrefutable. The problem is that they’re connecting too many dots.
This paranoia the narrator feels at the beginning of Magnolia is meant to impregnate us. We are filled with a desire to explain things away in this film—to find some divine meaning, some cosmic interference, some paranormal reason that is causing these disparate innocuous entities to come together all at once. These three stories at the very beginning prime us for the gigantic story (or gigantic set of stories) that’s about to follow. We are asked to question how all of these people’s paths and trauma could possibly come together at once.
There’s a major difference between a movie like Magnolia and something like Short Cuts or Crash. In those last two movies, the coincidence is inconsequential to the characters. Various people intertwine and cross paths with each other and share the same struggles all without ever realizing it—only we the audience recognize these elements of coincidence.
But in Magnolia, we are earnestly called to recognize the coincidence and make sense of it at the very beginning. This meta-ness is key to Magnolia’s ideology. These aren’t just coincidences happening in some far-off fairytale—we are actively witnessing these coincidences and asked to make sense of them, to not contain these coincidences to the television screen in front of us. It’s bigger than that. Think of Phil’s speech to the Seduce and Destroy telephone operator:
I know this sounds silly, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get ahold of the long-lost son, you know, but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know? Because they really happen. See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.
Anderson is smart to note these moments where something appears improbable…yet it is happening. This isn’t a joke—we are witnessing something transcendent, something celestial, something seemingly supernatural. This is, in fact, very normal. “These strange things happen all the time.”
So how do we deal with questions that can’t be answered by our mortal minds? Why did these frogs fall from the sky? How did the frogs happen to fall on all these people who were going through the exact same situations, whose paths had crossed on this particular day in San Fernando Valley?
This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance…right? So how do we make sense of it all?
I mentioned it earlier, but there are three answers people often use to explain coincidence: divine intervention, cosmic purpose, and paranormal activity. And we the characters of Magnolia going through similar motions.
Jim is the believer in God. Twice in Magnolia we see him sitting in front of a cross. In fact, his character is introduced this way—right at the beginning of the movie after we’ve seen those three coincidences play out.
But the more telling shot comes later in the movie. In an out-of-body scene where each of the characters is singing the song “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann, Jim sings the lines, “It’s not going to stop / It’s not going to stop / ‘Til you wise up.” In the first shot, Jim is facing the cross, in the light, praying to God. But in the second shot displayed here, he faces away from the cross, sitting in darkness, questioning his place in life and how to fix things:
With those beliefs in his back pocket, how does Jim deal with frogs falling from the sky—an event that actually took place in the Bible? In the end, what he undoubtedly perceives to be a divine occurrence drives him to profess his commitment to Claudia. Before the frogs fell, he was in a place of defeat, ready to divert back to his old, passive ways. But after the frogs fell, he was empowered, impassioned to seize the day, to find someone that will help him combat his loneliness.
Then there’s the case of the paranormal. Claudia claims she was physically abused by her father, but has never spoken up about it. Before the #MeToo movement, you could see this being a problem many people dealt with silently. And because of her silence, Claudia bottled up all her emotions and fell apart from the inside.
But it seems that Claudia might have spoken up through her art. In a key scene at the end of the movie when the frogs are falling, Anderson zooms in on one of Claudia’s paintings. And in the corner of the painting are the words, “But it did happen.”
What is “it”? Is it the terrible thing that happened to Claudia? Did she paint this painting? Or is this someone else’s painting that happens to comment on this paranormal event taking place in Claudia’s life? Is the “it” the frogs? Is “it” the string of coincidences that has tied everyone together today in the San Fernando Valley?
This is one of those movie moments where you question the reality of the situation. After all, we had earlier watched each character sing a song in unison. So is this painting a moment where Anderson has inserted himself into the film? And called our attention to the coincidence?
Finally, there’s the idea of cosmic purpose. This is more of a scientific point of view that rejects the idea of God and paranormal activity as superfluous and instead chalks the coincidences of life up to random processes. This belief claims that the universe has no inherent purpose. So the bad things that happen to people? The coincidences we see? They mean nothing. Our lives and our collective evolution is completely unguided.
This idea is conveyed when Stanley looks at the frogs falling from the sky. He simply says, “This is something that happens” over and over.
While the ideas of “life means nothing” and “humanity is unguided” might stress some people out, other people find comfort in those facts. With this frame of mind, bad things happen to people because…well, because things happen to people. Good and bad things. It’s random. It’s all chance. And there’s only a pattern if we assign a pattern to it.
Stanley finds comfort in these thoughts here at the end of the movie. There is no larger force guiding his life into bad territory—he can be in charge of his life’s direction. He can choose to focus on the bad things, or he can choose to focus on turning the bad things into good things. That’s why he approaches his father at the end of the movie and says, “You need to be nicer to me.”
In all four of these moments, we see people dealing with the presence or absence of a higher power, a higher being that’s in control or not in control at all. Anderson’s approach to the characters reveals the myriad ways in which we deal with coincidence. But one truth links them all: we need to find ways of coping with coincidence and the randomness of life. Because if we don’t, we’ll be at the mercy of life’s pitfalls and sink into a state of oblivion. Whether we believe in God or nothing at all, we can be in control of what happens in our lives. It’s all about our frame of mind and how we perceive our surroundings.
Coming full circle, the narrator comes back at the end of the movie to deliver a speech:
And there is the account of the hanging of three men, and a scuba diver, and a s**cide. There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
Do you see the journey being conveyed here? At the beginning of the movie, the narrator is paranoid about coincidences. But here, he seems to be accepting of what is merely the reality of our existence. “These strange things happen all the time.”
The most important part of this quote is the last part: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” This may allude to what is known as “hindsight bias.” In that Psychology Today article, hindsight bias is defined as “judging the probability of the event after the fact, pondering the odds backwards.” Life can seem pretty crazy and out-of-your-control when you look backwards and connect a bunch of seemingly disconnected dots. Right? Many people lives their entire lives that way. And they’re probably miserable and ridden with paranoia.
But…let’s flip that idea on its head. Consider, for instance, the fluke of your own existence. You were one of millions of sperm that could have been fertilized by your mother’s egg—you are a statistical improbability. In fact…everybody is a statistical improbability. Which in reality makes your improbability nothing special. You’ve looked backwards and identified something that is actually very ordinary and normal to be extraordinary and abnormal.
See where I’m going with this? When you look backwards, you’re able to pinpoint things that make a coincidence possible—which anybody could do for any situation. So when we watch Magnolia and we see all of these coincidences play out, we make up excuses for why they happen just like the characters do. This becomes our participation in the film and fuels the meta-ness at hand—we can imagine ourselves in this exact position because we’ve been part of our own seemingly impossible coincidences before. And just like the characters of Magnolia, we have no true answers for why it happens.
And that’s the danger of coincidence, of the randomness of life. We would like to think some higher power is controlling these coincidences because that makes things easier. But when you do that, you’re giving up your life to someone else, to something else. You lose all control.
But that’s what makes that quote so important: “the past ain’t through with us.” Of course things from our past will come back to haunt us. As we move about through life, various elements come into play and remind us of past trauma. We’ll meet other people who have experienced the same trauma. And we won’t believe how all of this seemingly random series of events came together to remind us of such trauma. But…it happened. Because it does happen. “This is something that happens.”
That’s the takeaway of the film: You can be in control of your path. When you’re held prisoner by your past, then your past is constantly lurking around every corner. But when you learn to be in control of your past, to no longer let it define you, to become a master of your own domain—to “wise up,” as Aimee Mann would say—then you can become the dictator of your surroundings. When you do that, life suddenly won’t seem so random. In fact, it becomes a movie that you’re writing.
And you can decide how it ends.
Society’s collective abuse of children
The ugly parallels between parents and their children is not exactly a subtle theme in Magnolia. Claudia was physically abused by her father, Frank was abandoned by his father, Donnie’s parents took his money, and Stanley is constantly emotionally abused by his father. Plus, Jimmy and Earl repeatedly cheated on their wives. The gross behavior from the parental figures in this film went on to haunt their children and put their children in a state of emotional debilitation.
But Magnolia takes this abuse one step further. Not only does Anderson magnify this abuse by focusing on a collection of stories that all intersect thematically, but he’s also blown up the abuse to show how society enforces such contemptible conduct. The director constantly paints the adults of this film as people who take children for granted. They mock and belittle these human beings in their infancy, unaware of the trauma they’re causing before these kids have even had a chance to grow up and discover their true identity.
Anderson seems to be mocking society’s unconscious mistreatment of children in the very beginning as he introduces Jimmy Gator and his game show, What Do Kids Know? Donnie recalls his own participation in the game show as a child when Jimmy said to him, “Thank you for all that unnecessary knowledge… haha, kids! Heads so full of useless knowledge.” Donnie is an older man who becomes a “Ghost of Christmas Future” figure to Stanley, who himself is in the midst of being used by the television network to up the game show’s ratings, being used by his own father to become rich.
The phrase “What do kids know?” implies that nothing substantial could ever affect a child like it affects an adult. It’s just a game show, after all. Is it really that detrimental to place a kid in front of a massive audience and laugh at their innocence and awe at their genius? How much emotion could this child possibly feel? What does he or she know about the hardships of life?
Anderson highlights this emotionally wrought connection between Stanley and Donnie and the lack of meaning the game show contributed to their identity when Donnie sits in front of his giant check that was later stolen away from him by his parents.
That check serves as a constant, gigantic reminder of how much What Do Kids Know? screwed up Donnie’s life. It was all fun and games to watch him on TV. But nobody ever once considered the psychological turmoil of being propped up as a piece of entertainment at such a young age.
This inability to recognize children as full-fledged individuals—as complex people with complex emotions, as human beings who are just as vulnerable to trauma as any adult—is conveyed by Stanley when he delivers this monologue live on the air:
This isn’t funny. This isn’t cute. See the way we’re looked at? Because I’m not a toy. I’m not a doll. The way we’re looked at because you think we’re cute? Because, what? I’m made to feel like a freak if I answer questions? Or I’m smart? Or I have to go to the bathroom? What is that, Jimmy? What is that? I’m asking you that.
Stanley can’t even get these adults to take him seriously when he has to go to the bathroom—so how can we expect them to acknowledge basic emotions that plague him?
This dynamic plays out on a giant stage for the entire country to see. It’s a great technique Anderson employs where he balances the macro with the micro. On the macro scale, we witness an entire society taking children for granted—and in turn enacting intense psychological abuse on those children that will last for years to come (look at how Donnie turned out).
The macro scale is even extended to history, Stanley does research on child geniuses. This reveals that it’s not just some modern game show—we’ve always been facetious about how to properly raise children in society. There’s a sick irony to the proceedings as Stanley looks as these young girls and boys on the pages of the very books that trained him to be so smart.
But on a micro scale, we’re watching several other people who are unable to cope with life and become a part of society years after their emotional (as is the case with Frank) or physical (as is the case with Claudia, in addition to emotional) abuse. By pitting these two landscapes against one another—the macro and the micro—we receive a sweeping evaluation of how difficult and harrowing it can be to grow up in this world. Such turmoil leads to intense loneliness (which we’ll cover in the next section) that feels impossible to overcome.
Obviously the theme of societal child abuse is shown through each of the movie’s main characters. But Anderson adds a specific poetic touch to this thematic thread to which I’d like to call attention. At the very beginning of the movie, the three coincidences we hear about from the narrator all involve parental figures—we find out this information even if it isn’t pertinent to the situation.
In the first coincidence, for example, we learn that Sir Edmund William Godfrey (the man who was attacked) was a “Husband, Father, Pharmacist and all around gentle-man.” Anderson capitalizes these three descriptors to note how they are important for defining the man: after he passed, he left his wife and children behind. The same goes for the second coincidence, but things become much darker. Craig Hansen was an “estranged father of four” who had “a poor tendency to drink.” Not only did Craig leave his children behind when he got drunk and took his own life, but he was already estranged from his children (likely because of his drinking habits).
And in the third coincidence, Faye and Arthur Barringer fought so much that Sydney wanted to put an end to everything by loading a shotg*n his mother would threaten his father with. And the only person who knew this? A child resident of Sydney’s apartment building.
As the story of this coincidence is closing out, we get a shot of Sydney’s mother being dragged away by the police. And we cut to the young boy as he watches:
Anderson quickly zooms across the hallway and comes to a tight close-up on the boy’s face—this is how the opening scene ends. This is the first of three shots that will form a connection from beginning to end.
The second shot involves a young man named Dixon who approaches Jim about his case. Dixon claims he can tell Jim who committed the crime—if he listens to his rap. And after Dixon performs his rap, we cut to this shot of Jim looking at Dixon:
Clearly Jim is casting doubt on Dixon, who has actually just told him to committed the crime. He isn’t being taken seriously and is thus cast aside by this adult.
Finally, we’ll cut to the end of the movie where Stanley confronts his father. “Dad? You need to be nicer to me,” he says, to which his father responds, “Go to bed.” And as Stanley walks away, we get this shot:
In all three of these shots, we’re given the perspective of an adult. In the first shot, Faye stands at the other end of the hallway and screams; you could even argue that the narrator is providing the point of view in this case. Anderson zooms down the hallway to highlight the manic energy of the moment, to show how this chilling moment will likely haunt a child for years to come. Then in the second shot, we are behind Dixon with Jim’s face clearly in view. The boy’s face isn’t even included in our point of view, as Jim’s lackluster energy tells us everything we need to know. And finally, the third shot forces us to be with Stanley’s father as Stanley walks away. We watch as the boy exits the room after what was likely the most traumatic day of his young life. What will tomorrow bring? How will the father become a better person and fix this?
The succession of events here is beautiful. In the first shot, we witness the impetus of trauma. In the second, we see society’s lack of empathy and understanding. And in the third, there’s a small signal of hope. Together, these three shots convey the importance of listening to the children of society, of viewing them as individuals that are every bit as capable of hurt and love as we are. If we do that, we can put our children on a better path.
Coming full circle with the entire film, the macro scale becomes a scary indictment of the micro situations. Parents need to be better about listening to their children—but how can that happen when there’s a societal habit to treat them as less-than? There needs to be a collective approach to solving this problem. Because if there isn’t, people (like the characters in this movie) will be left to the dust.
The importance of overcoming loneliness
You can see how the first two themes we discussed would merge into this final one: loneliness. Solitude. Complete and utter isolation. Feeling like there is nobody else in the world who could possibly understand your problems.
The first theme of randomness and chance can make it seem like the universe is constantly forcing you to confront past trauma. And the second theme causes people to hole up and disengage from the world. If you can’t deal with all the pain and hurt, if you can’t explain why these things happen…well, you can just go away. Right? You can escape it.
Except you never truly escape anything until you confront it—as each of the characters in Magnolia finds out. That’s why Anderson makes a point of exposing each of the characters’ loneliness through mise en scène, visually capturing how that solitude plays out in various ways.
Look no further than the very beginning of the film. After we hear about the three coincidences, the opening credits roll as Aimee Mann covers the song “One” by Harry Nilsson—a song that contains the line, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It’s the loneliest number since the number one.” Even when you’re with somebody (like Linda), you can feel lonely.
Then almost immediately, we’re introduced to characters that experience isolation. Even if they have other people in their lives, their energy is either lackluster or manic in a way that shows them lost in the shuffle.
Jim is introduced as sitting by himself in a police meeting, while every other police officer is paired with their partner. This keeps in line with Jim’s life, as his introduction shows him doing various things around his apartment completely alone. He even gives a monologue about the life of a police officer…to nobody. He’s by himself all day every day when doing his rounds. This reveals that Jim is desperate to speak with someone else, to share his life with another individual.
Loneliness begets longing.
Then there’s Frank, who disguises his loneliness with a coat of armor. He runs a male-oriented service called “Seduce and Destroy” where he trains men to get women into bed. He’s vulgar in his approach, telling men that they should do things like “form a tragedy” to trick women into sleeping with them. The irony of the situation, of course, is that Frank himself experienced emotionally crippling tragedy. Yet he’s so blinded by that tragedy that he can’t recognize how messed up it use the drama of tragedy for something so trivial.
We would think of Frank as a heartless individual who knows better and doesn’t deserve our empathy—if it wasn’t for Anderson’s cinematic eye. Of course, Anderson constantly frames Frank as a disillusioned and lost individual that’s actually a victim of incredible loneliness. He even tout his loneliness to the world and pretend everything is great:
Frank blames that loneliness on his father. Earl left Frank’s mother, leaving Frank to fend for himself. This set Frank on a path where he actively rebuffs himself from society. He says despicable things and trains men to do despicable things—his anxieties and insecurities are laid out for everybody to see. And he is justly demonized for it. And as we see in that photo, he seems pretty proud about it.
Loneliness begets rebellion.
Solitude even plagues people like Earl and Jimmy, who are consumed by the terrible things they did to people throughout their lives. Take Jimmy, who reveals to his wife that he may have physically abused Claudia when she was a child. To which Rose responds, “You deserve to die alone for what you’ve done!” And that he does.
Or take Earl, who tells a story to Phil about how he cheated on his wife and abandoned his child—and now look at him. All alone in a big house, dying of cancer.
Loneliness begets regret.
Linda is also experiencing her own form of regret. Linda feels awful for the way she’s treated Earl—a man who, again, is dying alone. At the end of Earl’s life, as he sits in agony, Linda transfers that pain onto herself, regretful for the way she used and cheated on Earl. As the drugs continually fail to take the pain away from Earl, she pops the pills herself in hopes of overcoming her own emotional sickness—but it doesn’t work for her either.
Linda had never been able to profess this guilt to anyone because she didn’t want to risk inheriting Earl’s wealth. But at the end of the movie, she’s ready to give that up. She’s wants to lead a new life and abandon the way she’s been—which means giving up her addiction as well. And as she copes with these myriad stressors all at once, she’s unreasonable and out-of-control to everyone around her. She snaps at people and even slaps Phil.
This inability to deal with the people around you, the belief that everyone is talking about you or thinking a certain thing about you, is summed up with this shot in the pharmacy (where she is conveniently surrounded by her very addiction) when the two pharmacists are suspicious of her purchase:
Because of Linda’s loneliness, she’s always on the defense. She never feels safe. She’s always wondering what could have been or what’s going to be. She’s never in charge of her own path. And even after she tries to be in control, she decides she can’t manage and tries to take her own life. There was nothing she felt she could do to stop any of this.
Loneliness begets paranoia.
The “Wise Up” music video perfectly conveys the communal sense of loneliness all the characters experience. The repetition of “it’s not going to stop” certainly carries an air of defeatedness, as each character is at the low point of their day. The trauma only continues to continue, and they feel helpless in stopping it—they’re in complete emotional limbo. So perhaps it is easier to just, as Stanley says, “give up.”
Loneliness begets oblivion, begets emptiness, begets extinction.
So what’s the antidote? Luckily, there’s a ray of hope at the very end of the movie, as we see Jim confronting Claudia during her moment of turmoil. He says to her:
I can’t let this go. I can’t let you go. Now, you… you listen to me now. You’re a good person. You’re a good and beautiful person and I won’t let you walk out on me. And I won’t let you say those things – those things about how stupid you are and this and that. I won’t stand for that. You want to be with me… then you be with me. You see?
After hearing this, Claudia turns to the camera and smiles:
It’s a beautiful moment that shows the power love and companionship can have in someone’s life. People can certainly set themselves on the proper path by confronting their demons. Frank did that by spilling his guts out to Earl, Stanley did that by telling his dad to be nicer to him, and Donnie did that by returning the money to his boss. Earl even took a step in the right direction by professing his sins (even though it was too late).
In Claudia’s case, however, it shows that the escape from loneliness is a two-way street. Yes, you have to get past your own problems and be ready to love someone else—but the other person must be ready as well. And that’s what we see at the end of the film: two people who are ready to redefine their egos and be with one another.
In fact, that’s how we could choose to read the final line of Aimee Mann’s song: “No, it’s not going to stop. So just give up.” The term “wise up” means to become alert or aware of something, to start paying attention to yourself and your surroundings and understand how the world works. And if we’ve learned anything in this article, it’s that life is often unfair. Life can feel cruel and random and impossible to understand—but it’s like that for everyone. You’re not special, and you can get past your troubles. So why keep trying to fight it?
And dictate your own path.