Why do we need brokenness to appreciate goodness and beauty? The question was pounding on my mind after I watched Magnolia – a movie about regrets, bitterness, failures, and brokenness. Magnolia reminded me of what I felt as I watched Black Swan, Requiem of A Dream (Darren Aronofsky), Inception (Christopher Nolan), and Hannibal TV Series (Bryan Fuller). Dark yet brilliant; frustrating yet compelling. I appreciate such movies. They were the excellent portrayal of brokenness, but they lacked the hope that is also part of the human story.
I think that is the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as he weaves a bunch of stories together in the movie. A daughter who hates her dad, a father who is laying down in his coma haunted by his past, a son driven by a bitter heart turning him to be a wacko motivator, an unloved wife who eventually turns down her plans to kill her sick husband, a broken-hearted marketing officer who works on his teeth, an ambitious dad who is milking his brilliant boy, and a lonely good cop who falls in love with a drug-addict woman. These characters are people chained by their brokenness. Their souls are looking for redemption even though they do not know they need it.
Jim Kurring a police officer played brilliantly by John C. Reilly is bringing the dilemma of the reality to the table at the end of the movie, “Sometimes people need to be forgiven. Sometimes they need to go to jail. And that’s a very tricky thing on my part in making that call. I mean the law is the law and heck I’m gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of job. Tough part of walking down the street.”
Those lines encapsulate the heart of the movie. Anderson is presenting a fallen world between the tension of judgment and forgiveness where fallen creatures need to be raised up from their brokenness. This seems to be the message that Anderson hides (perhaps) intentionally beneath the sequences of dark and mostly depressing scenes.
Frank T.J. Mackey, a character played by Tom Cruise, is another desperate character who poignantly embodies a broken identity. Abandoned by his father since he was kid, Mackey and his mother had to fight for the life. He grew up hating his father and reached a point of denying his past. A scene where Mackey was being interviewed by a journalist prying and demanding the truth about his past was one of the profound scenes leading viewers to a philosophical question: where do humans belong?
We are living in the world where people are driven by false things. Say it is a hatred, a bitterness, an acknowledgment from others, competitions, or an unloved feeling. Ironically, we barely realize we are driven by them. Mackey is a picture of today’s modern societies who build their own meaningfulness by denying the truth about themselves, only to find that no matter how hard they try, the truth will always be the truth. “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us”, the narrator says. In searching for the meaning, this line conveys a theological truth about God and creation.
When God created humans for the first time, he made Adam with passion and affixed his image within. He made a human beautiful, aligned with God. That is where people belong and find the meaning of their existence. The Bible recounts a story of a fallen world, where God’s beloved creation is turning their back on him and hence is refracted to the core of their identity. We know the rest of the story. God was seeking his lost people. Like a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, God is restoring what his people had ruined.
What is problematic with most of the meaning-search cinemas is they emphasize brokenness without restoration. I am afraid that’s what I see in Magnolia. It doesn’t take a genius to see that our world is not a perfect one. Conflicts, failures, fall shorts, sufferings, mortalities, injustices are ubiquitous. They are manifestations of the fall. And Mr. Anderson seems to be playing with the tragedies, slowly dragging the despair until it’s unbearable and putrefied. Anderson’s characters in Magnolia carry around the message of brokenness. With great cinematographic, solid performances, and riveting music scores, Anderson compellingly portrays the poignant brokenness of the world. But he strides just as far as that line. No light of hope ignites. The tunnel seems to be dark all the way without light at the end of it.
Thankfully, the reality is not as somber as Anderson’s Magnolia. There’s more to the human story. There is hope for the brokenness and the helplessness – the hope that redeems the fallen world where pain, bitterness, and wounds are healed. Kurring, Mackey, and the rest of the characters in Magnolia are symbols of the broken world desperately needing a redemption that could never be attained by human attempts.
The Bible depicts stories of how God healed the brokenhearted and bound up people’s wounds (Psalm 147:3). In his love and mercy, he redeemed them, he lifted them up and carried them (Isaiah 63:9). The goodness and the beauty are real in a redeemed life. In a redeemed life, bitterness is the past; brokenness is mended; wounds are healed; and the beauty is restored.