Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is something special. Like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson he is beloved by enough people to make you suspicious, but damn he earns all the praise, and Punch-Drunk Love, one of his lesser discussed movies is amazing.
I’d like to use a different adjective, but amazing is all that comes to mind. This is a romantic comedy in many ways, and yet it’s a portrait of a deeply disturbed, isolated, troubled character. Anderson balances these two halves of the movie, creating something that compels you to laugh but makes you wonder if that’s the proper response.
The film is a deconstruction of the Adam Sandler personality played in any number of his popular comedies, whether it’s Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, or Big Daddy. The Sandler persona is a man child prone to hyper-violence. In those earlier comedies his violent outbursts usually contrast with his initial introversion. The Sandler character hides inside a simple shell and then lashes out, really only for comedic effect.
Here, however, Paul Thomas Anderson takes that character and picks him apart. Barry Egan is similarly restrained until he is prone to extreme, unpredictable violence. This is established early on, and the challenge is to empathize with and understand this character.
The film was shot with anamorphic lenses, allowing a distortion at the edge of the frame that is emphasized by the camera movement and character blocking. Everything in this movie is carefully constructed, and everything is there to give us a glimpse into the world of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler).
The above image is the first shot of the entire film. We’re introduced to this character in a strange, bleak environment. He is isolated, he is off-center, and he is small in the frame, something the distortion of the anamorphic lens only heightens.
We know nothing about Barry. He sits there in a blue suit calling about an airline promotion. Barry has read into the fine print and believes he’s found a loophole. He calls to make sure he has indeed read this correctly.
Where is he? Who is he? We don’t know. Though we soon understand more about his life and his work, this opening scene sets up Barry as a man alone in his own world. We can’t trust anything about him, at least in the conventional sense. He wears a suit, sure, but his business partner Lance (Luis Guzman) will soon arrive and ask him, “what’s with the suit?” He sits at a small desk in the corner, but this isn’t his office, and his business sure as hell has nothing to do with this airline promotion.
Barry Egan hides from the world. He gets to work early, presumably to work in silence. No conversation is casual, and everyone has the potential to hurt him. Egan is a lonely man hounded by each of his seven sisters, one of whom is particularly aggressive and wants to set him up with her friend Lena (Emily Watson). Barry urges her not to, accusing her of trying to humiliate him, and this accusation only forces his sister to double down.
The entire film is incredibly subjective, so it’s hard to take the wrath of Barry’s sister at face value. Her incessant mockery towards her brother quickly borders on unrealistic, just as Barry’s quickness to punch out a plate glass window feels highly sensational. Back in the film’s opening scene, Barry finds himself in a situation touched by magical realism. A car drives down the street and is suddenly upended before rolling across the frame. The scene is eerily silent before, and the sudden car wreck startles both Barry and the audience. This isn’t what the scene is about, though, because once the car passes through the frame, another van screeches to a halt and a few unknown passengers set out a harmonium (small piano) on the street and speed off, kind of like a reverse heist.
Barry just stares at the harmonium, and he’s framed in three separate wide angle shots, establishing his isolation and the nothingness around him. The road is empty, and yet in the next cut a large semi comes screaming across the screen, startling Barry. It’s a moment that makes no sense logically, just like with the car crash and sudden appearance of the harmonium, but it’s not meant to make sense. These sudden intrusions in Barry’s life are meant to upend his normal routine just as Lena’s arrival as the love interest will soon do as well.
These early moments also show just how unprepared for the world Barry is, and it’s a great way to make us feel his anxiety. The rest of the film continues this trend, and the music (that kind of pulsating, bubbling score you find in 2015’s Krisha) helps emphasize this feeling of anxiety and isolation.
Everyone and everything pushes Barry around. This is a strangely tense movie, and though there is a subplot involving extortion and physical violence, the most tense moments have nothing to do with it. What mostly gives Barry fits is his sisters’ behavior. They torment him like you do to a younger sibling, and Barry can do nothing about it. He has no course of action, and when he shatters a plate glass window out of frustration, he does so only because nothing else he can say will alleviate the pressure he feels. In contrast, when Barry is eventually harassed and assaulted by men sent to extort money out of him, he simply knocks them the hell out. His proclivity for violence makes sense in such a situation, and he handles himself like Jake LaMotta.
Most often long takes are fluid. They’re used as a way to introduce us into a space or to glide through a particular environment, like some kind of omniscient being. There’s the famous steadicam shot through the restaurant in Goodfellas or the God-like camera perspective at the start of Touch of Evil, the pretty amazing shot following James McAvoy through the beach in Atonement and even an impressive shot through the hallways of a tv studio in Anderson’s previous film, Magnolia. In these moments– oh also one of the battle scenes from The Revenant. Okay, so in all of these moments the camera moves with a sense of purpose or serenity. It glides and floats and sometimes zooms.
In Punch-Drunk Love the shots are long and carefully choreographed, but they move spastically. In a single shot you might find the camera moving in all four directions. Sometimes it follows Barry, other times it leads him, and in even other moments his movement doesn’t run parallel to the camera’s. You could just say the camera is a character in the film, but I think it just helps add a sense of unease to Barry’s life. The camera frames him in such a way as to reflect how he feels about himself. He’s often off-center and unbalanced. His movements are sporadic and unpredictable. The camera often slowly pushes in on him so that it’ll begin in a wide shot and end in a close up as he feels the walls pushing in.
Near the midpoint of the film, all of the cinematic elements work well together to create the tensest sequence of the movie. It’s a fairly simple scene, narratively speaking, in which Lena approaches Barry to ask him out, and yet it feels as if the world is collapsing. As she tries to talk to him, Barry fields calls from a sex hotline which is becoming more aggressive and threatening, and in the background his employees begin dropping palettes of whatever they’re moving. The music gets louder, like the heartbeat of someone with experiencing an adrenaline rush, and the frame gets closer and closer on Barry. If I remember correctly, the shots get shorter and shorter, cutting with more frequency. This stands out much more because of the long takes that occupy much of the movie.
So Punch-Drunk Love is really just a movie about feeling. Are all movies that way? I don’t know. I can’t tell if that’s a hot take or something inherent to every movie I’ve ever seen. This is just a love story, but segments of the movie are about anxiety or isolation or anger, then joy, infatuation and something like true love. For Barry there are moments in which the world seems to conspire against him and moments in which everything might be going his way.
Perhaps this film is just about what it feels like to fall in love. When the car wreck and harmonium enter Barry’s life, it’s a sign that everything is about to change. His life as he knows it will be upended by Lena as well as this subplot involving a sex hotline. And I think, I may be wrong, but I think when you fall in love with someone there’s a part of you that wonders how you existed without them before they came along. At least that’s something you might feel initially, during the first spark of the encounter. It’s just so magical that you try to remember who you were before you met them, and something about the ‘you’ that you remember feels incomplete. Now, this isn’t true, of course, but in the heat of that initial honeymoon phase every emotion seems a little more extreme.
So the way Barry is at the start of the film might not be who he really is but rather a sense impression of what he once was before Lena entered the picture. He was down and out, but then a beautiful woman came his way, and he became the person he was always meant to be.
I’m not sure exactly, but Punch-Drunk Love effectively captures all of the emotions associated with a first love. There’s something pure about the affection shared between Barry and Lena but also quite ill-advised. It’s based on very little knowledge of the other, just an impression they receive and a projection of themselves onto the other. We know very little about Lena and despite spending the whole film with Barry we don’t know much about him either. There is something that draws the two together, no matter how unsustainable it might be.
Back to the feelings thing, Punch-Drunk Love manages to evoke those feelings of extreme anxiety but also unrestrained joy. Hell, there’s a scene of Barry dancing by himself in a supermarket while he gets his friend Lance to help him buy a sh*t ton of pudding to take advantage of that airline promotion established at the start of the film. He’s like a kid, dancing away endearingly and foolishly. The point is to show how happy he is, but it’s also a type of joy that doesn’t seem like it’ll last. It’s like a sugar rush, and soon it does burn out as his plan doesn’t work out.
There’s a happy ending to Punch-Drunk Love, but the end of the movie involves Barry apologizing to Lena for leaving her at the hospital (following a car collision) before having gone all the way to Utah to confront the man who ran the scheme which extorted money from Barry. He tells the man not to betray someone’s trust, and the encounter (with insane, hilarious profanity) is like a schoolyard fight between two children. The other man, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry can only try to out scream the other. They don’t come to blows, but they just try unsuccessfully intimidate the other. They’re man children with emotions they can barely tolerate.
So I think Punch-Drunk Love is about the powerlessness of the start of a relationship or just of a first relationship. Everything is heightened, sensational, inexplicable, and it saves the main character in a way you might’ve once assumed a young romance would.
Up Next: Faces Places (2017), Dark City (1998), The Thing (1982)