If there’s one thing Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Magnolia wants you to know, it’s that there are no coincidences in life. The plot is reliant on this fact and on the understanding that the links between several seemingly unassociated people in the San Fernando Valley bears heavy narrative and thematic weight in the film and will ultimately pay off in a big way. Anderson masterfully reveals the connections of his characters to one another at just the right moments, in order for us to marvel at the non-coincidences we are bearing witness to. While using a fast, exciting soundtrack and flashy stylistic choices like whip pans and match cuts, alongside a host of other techniques, Anderson notifies us that all of this is a carefully orchestrated mosaic that will build toward something monumental.
And it does. Two hours and forty-five minutes into the film, a frog falls from the sky and explodes on the windshield of Police Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). He is shocked and confused. Of course, we’re a little perplexed, too. But we trust Anderson and understand by now that this cannot be just another coincidence. Indeed, frogs have fallen before. In Exodus 8 of the Old Testament, Moses is told to relay a message to Pharaoh from the Lord, who warns “if you refuse to let [my people] go, behold, I will smite all your territory with frogs” (Exodus 8:2). He then goes into further detail, explaining that “the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into your house, into your bedroom, on your bed, into the houses of your servants, on your people, into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls” (Exodus 8:3-4).
The climactic moment of Magnolia is evidently a nod to the Bible passage, and Anderson leaves Easter eggs that allude to it throughout the film. A billboard reads “Exodus 8:2” on the side of the road after the first frog falls, a poster referencing the same verse is held up by an audience member at a quiz show, and even little nods to the number 82 are present in weather broadcasts, phone numbers, and many more spots noticeable only to the careful, fifteenth-time viewer. But why reference this passage?
The ultimate intention in casting a storm of frogs upon Egypt in Exodus is to express the total power of God, and emphasize the complete surrender required to be a successful person and a person of faith. The threat of frogs in Exodus explicitly invades every element of a person’s life: their community, their family, their bedroom, their kitchen, and, of course, their psyche. And, in the end, the burden of the storm is so traumatic to the Pharoah that he ends up yielding to the Lord and obeying his command. For now, Exodus’s frog storm has restored divine order in Egypt.
But, apart from little details like the frugal Christian emblems in Officer Jim’s bedroom, Magnolia does not pretend to be a film with overt religious themes. Rather than hold his characters to a particular kind of religious belief-system, Anderson instead signifies a divine intervention enacted through the subversion of a well-known, age-old narrative. Indeed, Magnolia’s frogs intervene in the lives of the film’s characters, but they do not first pose a command or a question.
The first frog falls at the moment that Officer Jim turns back to investigate the suspicious behavior of Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has just broken into his old workplace to steal money. Instead of questioning Donnie, however, the two are forced to seek shelter together from the raining amphibians. This gives Officer Jim a chance to become the cop he always wanted to be. Earlier in the film, in voiceover, he explained that he does not want to act as a judge but rather as a delegate to maintain good in the world, as well as someone to offer help when it is needed. Jim emphasizes that knowing when to condemn and when to forgive is something he struggles with, but in this moment of being serendipitously brought together, Jim is able to understand Donnie and help him, as opposed to persecuting him. This incident allows Officer Jim to realize his intention, and the true reason he wanted to be a cop.
Because of his yearning to do the right thing and his lack of understanding of how, Jim functions as something of a centerpiece for Magnolia. Lost souls are not uncommon in an Anderson film, and what Jim wants most in the world is to know when it’s time to act, and when it’s time to let go. This conflicting morality (but ultimate will for good) guides the rest of the characters when the San Fernando Valley is smitten with frogs.
Before seeking shelter, a frog falls on Donnie’s face and knocks him to the ground, crushing his two front teeth. As a retired child-star who feels his youth was stolen from him, Donnie has spent much of his young life attempting to retrieve and relive his childhood through means within his control, the primary of which was getting braces. The slamming of his face into the pavement is a direct divine response to this as if the universe is urging him to let go of the past and move forward with his life.
Aggressive, misogynistic TV personality Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) is another example of a character in Magnolia who is unable to move forward from the past. He has built an entire career attempting to foster an alpha-male persona in order to confront (or not confront) the fact that he was abandoned by his father, Earl (Jason Robards), at a young age. Frank reluctantly visits Earl on his death bed at the time of the storm, and, when on the verge of forgiving his father, the loud crash of the frogs on the roof awakens Earl from his coma and allows him to realize his son has forgiven him in his last moments.
Magnolia is as much about moving on from a traumatic childhood as it is about preventing one. Stanley Berry (Neil Flynn), is a child genius, but he is also treated like a prop and used at any and every expense for entertainment. And, when the frogs come down, Stanley seems to be the only one who understands what is going on. “This is something that happens,” he says, simply. This recalls the opening of the film, in which the narrator, an adult reflecting on his childhood, relays a series of uncanny events and says, “This is not just something that happens.”
But “this is something that happens” and “this is not just something that happens” are not necessarily two proclamations that are at odds with one another. Magnolia reminds us of the value in moving on by also reminding us that there are no coincidences. Claudia (Melora Walters) does not forgive her dying father for molesting her, but she does accept that she is worthy of a loving relationship in the touching final moments of the film. Things happen, and they are not coincidences, and the worthy get happy endings.