An Analysis – The Significance of Family in the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

There are significant aesthetic and tonal differences throughout all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, yet there’s a thematic continuity that is striking. From even his earliest film, Hard Eight, to his most recent, The Master, Anderson’s films tend to explore the nature of family, where characters who come from broken, damaging families find a community of people willing to support each other through whatever hardships. These surrogate families are helmed by charismatic salesmen who, in the end, are revealed to be just as toxic as their biological counterparts. In Anderson’s films, whether surrogate or biological, family is a crucible through which a member must overcome their dependence and learn to rely solely on themselves.

The Master 1

The typical Anderson protagonist hails from a broken home and is seen at the beginning of the film fleeing their dysfunctional family, orhaving already separated themselves from the familywandering the world alone. When the biological family is shown, as in Boogie Nights, it is paternal failure that drives the children away. (While it is true that Dirk’s overbearing mother is the main dysfunction, I believe it is the inaction of Dirk’s father, who simply looks up, cowering, with apologetic eyes, to his son, that is ultimately his son’s final straw). So it would only seem right that their surrogate families begin with a surrogate father. This surrogate father is always presented as a charismatic and powerful salesman who sees a latent potential in the protagonist. Whether selling a life of professional gambling, porn, television, oil, or spiritual redemption, the father figure recruits the son via a sales pitch marketing his family as the way to a better life. Family, in a significant way, promises a social status, a status that the drifting P.T. Anderson protagonists buy in to.

In addition to social status, families largely affect an individual’s personality and identity. Family defines. What is acceptable or not acceptable to your father carves out your own idea of what is allowed in the world. In Anderson’s earlier surrogate families, there is not much that is unacceptable: Hard Eight’s Sydney ushers John into a life of gambling, girls, and materialistic excess, while Boogie Night’s Jack Horner brings Dirk into a life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Anderson’s later films create a more complex framework of fathers trying to exist within the overarching hegemony. There Will be Blood presents Daniel Plainview as a man attempting to be viewed as a loving, Christian father (the guise of the honest man), and The Master displays Lancaster Dodd as assuming the role of prophet in post WWII America (the guise of the holy man). However dissimilar the father figures in both the earlier and the later films, they’re all puppeteers effecting through their family a long term plan. In these surrogate families, the role of the patriarch is nothing more than a conceit, a mask of power worn by ambitious individuals to exude influence over those they’ve surrounded themselves with. The father figure is seen as a master manipulator, or salesman, pitching attitudes and ideas to his followers that will bring about his desired results: power, fame, or fortune.

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Now, it’s not all as cut and dry as this. Where does PunchDrunk Love or Magnolia fit in all of this? Let’s take a look at PunchDrunk Love‘s Barry Egan first. Unlike most of Anderson’s other protagonists, Barry hasn’t escaped his family, is actually still ensnared by them. All seven of his sisters are overbearing and abusive and, to what extent he can, Barry has distanced himself from them. Consequently, he is a lonely, drifting man seeking companionship in whatever family he can findeven if he has to pay a dollar a minute. The call girl he finds himself entangled with is seen less as a sexual object than as a companion, as family. So, in effect, when he denies her the money she demands and has her father figure send “the brothers” to collect, Barry is encountering her surrogate family. But the lesson is the same: in order to free himself, Barry must confront this father figure and express his dominance, his own independence.

Magnolia is a bit more difficult to address in its magnitude. It deals with several broken families, the sins of several fathers visited upon several sets of children, and these children’s several desperate attempts to break the cycle. Frank Mackey, Stanley Spector, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, and Claudia Wilson Gator are all fractured souls broken from the abuse and neglect of their biological fathers. Throughout the film, these characters wrestle with the demons of their past and attempt to break free from their family. To varying degree, they do (Stanley, still a child, must remain legally bound to his father, but does make a stand against him). After breaking free from the bonds of their poisonous families, to what surrogate family do these characters find themselves members? The mention of Exodus, the numbers 8 and 2 spread across the film like Easter eggs, and the deluge of frogs that climaxes the narrative all point to a theological interpretation. Whether viewed religiously or not, having joined this universal family, these characters have still made their stand, have asserted in their own small ways their right to be the masters of their own destinies.

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And so we see in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson a view of family, whether surrogate or not, as the training ground for individual identities. They are flawed social structures that can provide love and acceptance and solace, but that ultimately, through a father figure, define too constrictively roles to be acted out. It is only through the refusal of such prescriptive actions that a person can assert their own dominance, their own individuality, their own meaning.


Matt Newland is a Seattle based writer who has harbored a passion for films for as long as he can remember.

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