1999 was a fine year for film, including The Matrix, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, to name but a few. For this writer, however, two films stood out as modern masterpieces, the scathing, acerbic look at suburban life in American Beauty and this film, Magnolia, an epic mosaic of secrets and lies set within the San Fernando Valley.
Paul Thomas Anderson was only 28 when he made this, his third film, following Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Given creative freedom by studio New Line following the success of the latter, Anderson chose to make a 3-hour epic that on its release gained critical acclaim.
Despite being compared to the work of Robert Altman, the director of such ensemble pieces as Nashville and The Player, Anderson’s remarkable film paints a canvas all of its own, a sweeping and emotional drama with intersecting characters and interlocking plot threads which hinge upon the nature of random events and coincidence.
Thematically, Magnolia is a film about how the sins of adults bring destruction upon themselves and their children. Each character in the film tries to atone for their sins but as the narrator states, “we may be through with the past but the past is never through with us.” An incredible line up of actors bring to life the broken characters within, including Tom Cruise’s misogynistic self-help guru, Julianne Moore’s trophy wife and John C. Reilly’s kindly Christian policeman.
It would be unfair to elaborate on how these characters interact in fear of spoiling the film for newcomers. However, those willing to succumb to this multi-stranded tale are in for a treat as Anderson pulls the various story threads together, a rich kaleidoscope of people struggling to make sense of their lives whilst living with guilt and regret.
Anderson employs many techniques to bring us up close and personal into the tapestry of life he is weaving. The camera zooms in and lingers on the faces of the actors as they convey the raw emotion of their characters. Momentum is built through an increasingly dramatic musical tempo as each story gains intensity. In one long take, the camera moves seamlessly through rooms and hallways, taking us from one character to the next, a giddying experience that is representative of the film as a whole.
There is even a musical montage, where each actor sings along to Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up.’ It is to Anderson’s credit that this sequence doesn’t seem out of step with the rest of the film as it perfectly captures the moment each character faces the consequence of their actions. Then as the film builds in almost Biblical proportions, something inexplicable happens and as incredulous as it seems the camera zooms into a sign reading “but it did happen,” reminding us that life is full of random and sometimes inexplicable moments.
For this writer, Magnolia is one of the best films ever made. It is a human drama that should resonate with all of us. Life can be a struggle and many of us live with guilt and regret over our mistakes. However, as the film reminds us in its closing scenes through the smile of one its more tragic characters, there is hope, so redemption may not be too far away.