Magnolia Character Analysis by Julia Van Valkenburg

PTA - 6Today Julia from Catch*All has stopped by to talk about the characters in Anderson’s classic film Magnolia… (be warned there are heavy spoilers ahead)

“…it is 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. These strange things happen all the time.”

I’ve had Magnolia on my “to watch” list for some time now, so when James asked me if I’d like to contribute to his Paul Thomas Anderson celebration, I decided it was a great opportunity to finally see the film. What struck me most about Magnolia was Paul Thomas Anderson’s adept and humble understanding, even at the young age of 27, that life is seriously complicated and that living is sometimes excruciatingly difficult.  What’s also striking about his ambitious work is that each and every character is vibrantly rich and complex. Their flaws are lit brightly for all to observe, though Magnolia is best understood without too much judgment or logic involved. It’s something to breathe in, enjoy, and ruminate on afterwards.

Because Magnolia is a long film filled with lots of characters and stories, I thought I should list the individuals I’ll be discussing further so that they can be referenced:

Earl Partridge / Jason Robards

Linda Partridge / Julianne Moore

Phil Parma / Philip Seymour Hoffman

Frank T.J. Mackey / Tom Cruise

Donnie Smith / William H. Macy

Stanley Spector / Jeremy Blackman

Rick Spector / Michael Bowen

Jimmy Gator / Philip Baker Hall

Rose Gator / Melinda Dillon

Claudia Wilson Gator / Melora Walters

Officer Jim Kurring / John C. Reilly

Dixon / Emmanuel Johnson

One thread that is very prominent in the film is the relationship between parents and children, and in particular, the downfalls of fathers. Earl Partridge abandoned his wife and son Frank, Jimmy Gator sexually abused his daughter Claudia (though this is never directly stated), and Rick Spector exploits his brilliant son Stanley just as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith’s parents did to him. What the audience doesn’t see is the pain that burdens these fathers, which has engrained their propensity to continue a pattern of grief and angst. As adults Frank Mackey and Donnie Smith are both deeply affected by their childhood and they represent what may happen to Stanley unless he somehow breaks the cycle. What’s implied is that the cycle is difficult to break, though not entirely impossible.

Magnolia 3There are also two women, Linda Partridge and Claudia Wilson Gator, who use drugs to cope with their troubles. Claudia uses cocaine, presumably in order to cloud the pain caused by the betrayal of her father. On the other hand Linda, who initially married Earl for his money but now loves him, is burdened by immense guilt manifested as a result of her own actions.

In the case of Linda, and many of the film’s characters, we don’t know much about her past or why she is the way she is. All we can be sure of is that her previous experiences reflect on who she is today. Throughout the film three things are common: pain, mistakes, and regret.

It is also understood that time does not heal all wounds.

Donny Smith is an older man, but feels as though braces will improve his chances with a young brawny bartender. Is this because he missed out on his childhood? Frank hadn’t seen his father for decades, but the pain of seeing and losing him one final time was deep and palpable. No matter how much time laid between these men and their childhoods, their suffering still resonated.

PSH MagnoliaIn the mix of flawed characters there are also a few “savior” characters. As Earl’s nurse, Phil does his best to make his final days comfortable and works tirelessly to reunite him with his estranged son. Officer Jim Kurring is another character that strives to positively impact the lives of others, including one of my favorite moments when he decides to help Donny Smith return his stolen braces money instead of arresting him. And although his role is small, I would argue that Dixon, the young boy who raps to Officer Kurring, is also one of the film’s key redeeming characters.

Another explicit theme in the film’s plot is love pursued and love lost. Ultimately, each character just wants to be loved and share their love, most poignantly expressed by William H. Macy’s monologue at the closing of the film: “I really do have love to give! I just don’t know where to put it!”

It’s also important to note that Magnolia takes place in one community and one day. By confining these segments into a small space and time, it reminds us that these problems we share are universal. Moments of pain, death, and regret happen every day and in every city across the world. But let’s not forget that so do moments of love and redemption, as highlighted in the film’s final scene.

My final takeaway from a film filled with so much meaning is that we cannot plan for life because we can’t plan for the unexpected. Magnolia is about things that cannot be understood. Such as the scuba diver who was swept up by a plane and dropped on a tree, or the frogs that came spilling from the sky – life really is that unexpected. Paul Thomas Anderson takes a humble stance. Some things cannot be understood. The lesson in Magnolia is that we must accept that and do our best.

“The book says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Many thanks to Julia for this post! Please do take the time to visit her site here:


  1. Very fine analysis Julia. Magnolia is just loaded with human emotions, problems, interactions and altercations. Like you mention, it’s a marvel that Anderson delivered this at the age of 27.

  2. Great work Julia! Really, I need to be watching more of his stuff :/

    1. You should indeed, especially Magnolia!

    2. Thanks Zoë! I’m working on seeing all of PTA’s films – I certainly haven’t seen enough either!

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