There is an abnormal amount of Internet speculation about the movie Groundhog Day. The Bill Murray vehicle seems to be embraced quite a bit in terms of religious speculation. For one thing, there is the speculation that Phil Conners actually never woke up on February 2nd. Imagine that Conners is actually trapped in between Heaven and Hell and his actions, as well as the actions of others, might be the only way to determine the ultimate fate of his soul.
Considering that the Beauty and the Beast curse of a witch was intentionally left out of the finished movie, then the entire thing is wide open to speculation. Gratefully, there is nothing that the Internet loves more than speculation.
10. “You Are Not a God…”
Phil Conners is stuck eternally in the same day, February 2nd. The key to getting out seems to be the love and approval of his producer, Rita, who may actually serve a higher function in Phil’s journey into the afterlife. Rita may be breaking through the fifth wall, as it were, when Phil tells her that he is “a God.” Assuming at this point that Rita is merely a physical manifestation of a higher guide which must argue for Phil’s release, then she is being pretty definite when she tells Phil that he is not a God. She then qualifies it back to her role when she adds on “You can take my word for it. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking.” This is also important because Purgatory is primarily a concept which is taught in the Catholic Church, and would be reinforced in Catholic Schools.
9. Some Souls Can’t Be Saved
Les Podewell plays an old beggar. No matter what Phil Conners does for the old man, he will still die that day. Conners feeds the old man, takes him to the hospital, tries to keep him warm, and even attempts to revive him himself. Through it all, the old man still passes on that day. It is merely his time. Conners cannot do anything to affect the situation, other than to try and make it a bit more comfortable for the old man before he passes. This is a stark contrast to Phil’s own situation, which can be affected by his actions.
8. Ned Ryerson
Part of the purpose of Purgatory is as an atonement for sins which occurred in life. This may be no more apparent than with the “chance” meeting with insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, played wonderfully by character actor Stephen Tobolowaky. Phil has little to no memory of who Ryerson is or was. Literally, Ryerson is an odd footnote in Conner’s life, but the opposite does not hold true. There is a hint at a further subplot that Conners stopped Ryerson from dating Conner’s sister. This may have been just another night to Phil, but may have been the end of Ryerson’s life.
Assuming that everyone in Punxsutawney is either dead already or a spiritual agent, this leads to a deeper question: What if Phil Conners caused Ned Ryerson to commit suicide? What if Phil actually owes Ned on some level? This is played out by Phil buying “insurance’” from Ned. However, Ned specifically uses the phrase that he “sure as heckfire” remembers Phil. In that, Phil could actually be tied to the eternal damnation of Ryerson’s soul. Since Ryerson is always the first person Phil seems to meet during the day, Ryerson would then become a type of Jacob Marley-esque warning to Phil about the consequences of not changing his ways.
7. Dante’s Inferno
It does not seem to be a mistake that the thing preventing Phil from leaving Punxsutawney is an inordinate amount of “ice and snow.” This is important in that a sea of icy rain would directly correspond to Dante’s Inferno, and give us the reason why Phil’s soul is locked in Purgatory.
The third icy circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno is reserved for gluttons specifically. This is the place that Phil is destined for if he cannot correct his ways. Is Phil a glutton? Absolutely. Look at what he does when presented with a situation with no consequences initially. Phil does everything to excess. He eats to excess. When he chooses to die, he even dies to excess.
The only excess that we are not shown is whatever excess may have caused his death on the night of February 1st. The police officer alludes to this when he tells Phil that he will certainly die if he goes forward. Why does Phil die in every other way, but never again by braving the elements of the storm? Somehow, Phil understands that out there is a different and more eternal type of death.
If Phil Conners really is in a Purgatory called Punxsutawney right next door to the third level of hell in Dante’s Inferno, then there has to be a key to his escape. In the Inferno, the third circle is protected by the mythical beast Cerberus. This is important because, in the Aeneid, Cerberus is only soothed to sleep by a song. Music soothes the savage beast, a theme which is later echoed in media such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is one that is echoed throughout literature.
The answer to Phil’s eventual release is hinted at throughout the movie. Phil starts out possessing no discernible musical talent. It is stressed by Rita that her true love will be able to play an instrument. She never mentions the possibility of calming a hellish beast which may let him cross out of his particular Hell. It does not mean that said beast is not in the background, though. Phil spends possibly years learning to play the piano, in an effort to impress Rita. When Phil starts playing music during the party, the music soothing a savage beast may be the key to Phil “moving on.”
5. Phil Gets A Glimpse Of The True Rita
Rita, in many ways, appears to be the key to Phil’s salvation. If the object was merely attaining the love of another individual, then Phil would have accomplished that goal with any of the various seductions that he did about town. Nancy accepting his marriage proposal would initially seem to have fulfilled the requirement, but clearly it did not, hence yet another death. The point is that there is something special about Rita, who is not only a woman, but possibly a metaphysical key, literally guiding him onto a higher plane of existence.
The keys to Rita’s heart are also coincidentally the keys to Phil’s “salvation.” When Phil lists all the things that he knows about Rita, he mentions that she “looks like an angel in the snow.” Even the ice sculpture that Phil makes of Rita takes on an angelic quality. This transcendent view may give Phil his only true glimpse of what Rita truly is. Rita may legitimately be an angel, as well as a spiritual guide sent to take Phil to his final destination. After all, he has never worked with, or met, Rita before the previous day.
She is labeled as a “producer.” Phil may well be her production.
4. Marie De France
If Rita is seen an angelic spirit guide who is giving Phil the tools he needs in order to get past Purgatory, then learning French and French poetry is an oddly specific request. One possibility for this might be to direct Phil to discover the works of Marie de France. Marie was a French poetess from the twelfth century. Among the most important of her works are a tome entitled Lais, as well as The Purgatory of St. Patrick.
Lais is a series of love poems, which Phil would have almost certainly found in order to impress Rita with his knowledge. The lovers in Lais are often tortured and made to suffer for their love, regardless of whether or not they are being unfaithful to another lover. The Purgatory of Saint Patrick concerns Patrick’s ascension, in which he must say the name of Christ in order to pacify horrors. If Rita can only give clues, then directing Phil’s obvious affection study tortured lovers and Purgatory would be a good start to his eventual salvation.
3. Danny Rubin
Danny Rubin was the writer of the original screenplay for Groundhog Day, and even wrote a book entitled How To Write Groundhog Day. In the book, Rubin admits that he only had a “high concept,” in which the main character was “the only variable in the universe.” Originally, the idea was referred to as “Time Machine,” and the character was forced to relive the same day over and over again due to a time loop. Rubin states that he was completely unaware of Frederick Nietzsche’s theory of eternal re-occurrence when he wrote the screenplay.
The point? Rubin only had the concept, as well as the writing for the screenplay. There was rather intentionally not a specific direction he was going in, besides the original “high concept” of a guy repeating the same day over and over again, but being able to remember the days gone past. There is also the important caveat that Conners can remember dying, but not what death itself is like. In this, Rubin leaves the reasoning and deeper meaning of Groundhog Day completely open to interpretation, without no direction other than his original idea of a guy repeating a day over and over again.
2. Phil Has “Unfinished Business”
In life (contrary to his own narcissism,) Phil Conners did not unleash any of his true potential. He never learned another language, had a real relationship, tapped into his innate musical talent, and was certainly never generous. It appears that most every day of Phil’s life was a complete and total waste.
One of the most common tropes in ghost stories is that they have “unfinished business” to be completed before they can “cross over.” Phil did not have unfinished business — he had an unfinished life. Therefore, Phil had to take the same day over and over again, which was probably as many days as he had lived up to that point, in order to simply get to the point where he should have been at the time of his death. In order to escape Purgatory, Phil must become a better soul worthy of Heaven so that his guide can present him. For Phil, this meant a literal eternity unlocking what was already there.
1. Phil Remembers Dying, But Not Death
Phil tries to escape his situation via death itself, but quickly learns that death is not actually a solution to his problems, because every time he dies, he simply wakes up and it is the previous morning. For Phil, there is nothing beyond dying except for the next day, which is the same day that he has already lived. This could be because Phil is, in fact, already dead. He doesn’t remember the next phase because he is already in it.
The only variable from one identical day to the next is Phil Conners. You don’t really meet the rest of the town until after Phil wakes up the next day. There is a closing of the eyes and a reopening of them, but there is no beyond. There is no spiritual reset that Phil remembers. It could possibly be that that is a door in which Phil has already passed through.