“Practical Magic” Is 20 Years Old And Just As Relevant As Ever
Practical Magic was once dismissed by critics as a tonally confused rom-com. Twenty years later, the film resonates instead as a story of women’s resilience.
During the climax to Practical Magic, witch Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman) lays exhausted and resigned on the old wood floors of her family home. She’s drenched in sweat, red hair pooled underneath her, her voice choked with tears. Her sister, Sally (Sandra Bullock), pleads with her, begging Gillian to stay strong. The moment plays like Gillian’s last gasps, her final moments as herself before she fully gives in to being possessed by the spirit of her former lover — Goran Visnjic’s Jimmy Angelov — a man who had abused her when he was alive and who won’t let go of her even in death. “Just let him take me,” Gillian says, too tired to keep fighting. There’s a whole community of women standing around them in that moment, but everyone is breathless.
But Jimmy does not triumph over Gillian. Sally, using blood magic and calling upon their family line, presses her bleeding palm against Gillian’s and blasts the abuser right out of her sister. It’s a pure and exhilarating moment — a blast of light exploding from the both of them, the breath reentering Gillian’s body, a wide smile spreading across her face. Practical Magic is a well-crafted movie from top to bottom, but this is the moment that makes it great. It’s also the moment, 20 years after the film’s release, that is the starkest reminder of how timely the film remains.
Practical Magic blew into theaters on Oct. 16, 1998. Adapted from Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel of the same name, it was directed by Griffin Dunne with a screenplay by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, and Adam Brooks. It’s a tender, airy movie, exploring themes of love and loss, family, trauma, and survival. Critics at the time did not like it. Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it. Roger Ebert called it “too scary for children and too childish for adults,” accusing the film of “veering uncertainly from horror to laughs to romance.” Angie Errigo wrote for Empire that “Practical Magic is a chick movie with multiple personality disorder” while also calling it “a run-of-the-mill rom-com with magic bells on.”
Practical Magic works to breathe life back into both its characters and its audience.
Luckily for us all, movies can amount to more than their initial reception. Practical Magic embedded itself in a lot of childhoods, and 20 years later, it remains beloved by the adults those children became. It also holds up — and even gets better — the longer it marinates. It seems, in hindsight, that critics didn’t know what to do with a movie that mixed genres so brazenly, and that — though the story happened to be about witches — reflected both the dark and the light that often sit side by side in real life. Practical Magic’s blend of tones is not its downfall: It is the film’s biggest strength.
Any film can have violence, and the catharsis that comes with defeating the bad guy. Any film can have romance, and lines that make you laugh. Part of what makes Practical Magic such a rare gem is that it portrays pain, grief, and emotional exhaustion at the same time as it works to breathe life back into both its characters and its audience. It’s why the film has built a loyal audience over the years, the kind that finds the film infinitely rewatchable. You can watch these women confront their demons — and maybe even confront your own in the process — without feeling too bogged down in darkness. The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.
Practical Magic opens with an old Owens family legend — that of a curse cast by an ancestor. As the story goes, every man who loves an Owens woman dies an untimely death, heralded by the sounds of a death watch beetle. The young sisters react to the legend in very different ways. Sally vows to never fall in love; Gillian can’t wait to, and runs away with a random boy in their town when she’s a teenager. The aunts eventually cast a love spell on Sally to get her to open herself up to romance. It works, and — ethics of love spells aside — she falls for a man (Mark Feuerstein) and marries him. They have two beautiful little girls (Evan Rachel Wood's Kylie and Alexandra Artrip’s Antonia). Then Sally’s husband dies. Widowed, she moves back in with her aunts, devastated and vowing never to do magic again.
That vow doesn’t last long: Gillian calls her in the middle of the night, having been beaten by her boyfriend, Jimmy. As Sally tries to help Gillian leave him, Jimmy kidnaps the two of them. Sally ends up killing him, then using magic to bring him back, only to kill him again when he won’t stop attacking Gillian. The second half of the film is largely them trying to cover up their actions, with the added complication of an officer — Aidan Quinn’s Gary Hallet — who is investigating Jimmy’s disappearance, and whom Sally finds herself rapidly falling in love with.
Practical Magic still manages to be a movie you want to crawl through the screen and live in.
Practical Magic’s duality isn’t just in its narrative. It’s embedded in every part of the movie. Production designer Robin Standefer went above and beyond in creating Practical Magic’s visual language. The house is absolutely the most famous aspect of the film’s look: It stands big, white, and Victorian on a cliffside, high above the ocean and surrounded by greenery. Inside, it’s the kind of home that you can tell feels especially cold in the winter, with its vast spaces, big, tiled hearth, and old black wood. It just makes the cable-knit sweaters all the more alluring.
The house is the perfect place for Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) to embody the middle-aged Owens aunts, brewing potions of love and revenge in their turn-of-the-19th-century dresses and wide-brimmed hats. It’s also an ideal setting for audiences to glom onto Bullock and Kidman as Sally and Gillian. They wear the very best of the ’90s, rich-patterned maxi skirts and dresses that make you understand on a deep level how those styles were meant to look. They have the thickest, most lush movie hair I’ve ever seen in my life, and it makes you feel the film’s ethereal nature in your bones.
Though its story is relatively dark, Practical Magic still manages to be a movie you want to crawl through the screen and live in. There’s no mention of what season the film’s events take place in, but the air in the movie feels perpetually autumnal: cozy, crisp, soft-eyed. Practical Magic evokes the feeling that you, like Sally, are standing on the edge of a bluff at dusk, releasing a leaf onto the wind, trusting it to work some magic and draw the person you love back to you. The film’s score, by the legendary Alan Silvestri, is all strings and horns. It makes you feel like you’re following that leaf on its waltz through the air.
The movie also knows when to have fun. One of the scenes that likely confused critics concerned with the tone involves the Owens women waking in the middle of the night to make margaritas and dance around their kitchen to “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson. It is raucous and euphoric, the camera spinning around the women and their overwhelmingly gorgeous kitchen as they let loose and give themselves fully to joy. But the scene is not weakened because it takes place in the middle of a murder investigation and stars a grieving widow and a woman recovering from abuse. Instead, it’s strengthened by that context. These are women calling a timeout on their stress and damage, giving themselves a moment to rejoice in each other’s company and in the simple fact that they are still alive.
The scene ends with the intrusion of Jimmy’s spirit. That could be a tonal mismatch to some, but it’s more than that — it’s a reminder that he is pulling Gillian’s strings even after death, and that the path to healing is not a smooth one.
Practical Magic is not interested in showing us the pain without also showing us that, complicated as the journey may be, there is still life left to be lived on the other side of that hurt.
Practical Magic is about a lot of things. It’s about family, sisterhood, and community. It’s about loss. It’s about beautiful antique houses. But if it’s about one thing most of all, it’s about the very real danger that comes with loving someone. Practical Magic knows the potential consequences intimately: You could lose them, like Sally lost her husband, or lose yourself, like Sally and Gillian’s mother did. Or they could hurt you, in small increments or in the very, very big ways that Jimmy hurt Gillian.
Practical Magic weaves a story about domestic abuse and the labyrinthian road that often comes with extricating yourself from a bad situation. It’s beautiful that the film also gets to be — at the same damn time — a full-hearted, earnest romance. As Sally and Gary keep finding themselves drawn to each other in spite of their star-crossed circumstances, the film gets back the breath Jimmy tried to steal from it. Both sides of the movie are treated as important, as worthy, because they are. Practical Magic is not interested in showing us the pain without also showing us that, complicated as the journey may be, there is still life left to be lived on the other side of that hurt. There is still love to be felt.
The image of a woman suffering because of a man’s violence is, unfortunately, a timeless one. Practical Magic’s 19th birthday took place only two weeks after the Harvey Weinstein stories broke, and just a day after #MeToo rose to mainstream prominence. It’s relevant on its 20th birthday, too, with Brett Kavanaugh recently sworn onto the Supreme Court. The anniversary falls so shortly after women all over the country watched Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of Congress, already so sure of her own annihilation, forced to relive her trauma decades after the fact in an act of public violence. A community rose up for Blasey Ford around her testimony. That testimony and the conversation around it were a stark real-world reminder that we all live next to survivors of abuse every day, that the process of healing is a rough road, and that our moments of trauma still live in us, intruders in our lives.
In real life these days, the concept of “witch hunts” is often attached to that of men who’ve been accused of wrongdoing. But in pop culture, that narrative remains the domain of women, and witch tales are often intertwined with stories of oppressive men. It’s a way for writers to weave in a perceived (if temporary) solution, a built-in resource through which to fight and heal. Audiences don’t have access to the magical powers that help these women onscreen. But if the art is built with enough love and craft, a movie can act as a balm for a weathered soul watching it.
Twenty years out, I still want to crawl through my screen and live in the world of Practical Magic. It could do with more people of color, but I can forgive that for the feeling that it still gives me and so many other people who continue to return to it. It gives us hope that the pain is exorcisable, and that curses on generations of women can be conquered. That Stevie Nicks’s discography and a little Faith Hill can help the healing along. I want to curl up inside the moment where Sally, who often resists her magical abilities, lights a candle with just her breath. Her daughters watch as she does this and immediately jump into the frame to mimic her, trying desperately to access their own powers.
When Sally and Gillian finally defeat Jimmy, it’s with the help of the women of their community, women who’d felt versions of this kind of pain before. They are crushed for her, but when Sally blasts the evil spirit out of her sister, he explodes into dust, and the women burst into relieved laughter. They sweep him out of there, banishing him for good. Gillian’s body and her spirit are free. Can you blame us for wanting to live there?