Retrospective: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2002)
During a 2002 interview with Charlie Rose, when asked whether he is going to take some time off, Adam Sandler promptly replies, “I don’t really wanna have to think too much about myself, I need to jump into the work… I keep hiding, I don’t wanna get to know me”; a telling response that is entirely in keeping with the self-depravity of ‘Barry Egan’, his character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, a role which Roger Ebert thought “see’s through the Sandler persona”. Whilst many will dismiss a film in which Sandler stars in as trivial or non-serious (and be justified in doing so), you will struggle to find a more convincing on-screen portrayal, in a film that gets overlooked as perhaps PTA’s most impressive.
A recurring mainstay of Anderson’s body of work is that he has both written and directed all of his films, and it has never appeared more crucial than in Punch Drunk Love. The weird and often psychotic episodes, on which the film centres around, would perhaps appear completely incoherent were it not for the symmetry that exists between the screenplay and visual direction. Together in concert, they induce a paranoia that at times reaches frenetic levels as the viewer is engulfed in Barry’s point of view. From the loneliness of calling a phone-sex line, to the pounding anxiety of speaking to his love interest, Anderson utilises every tool in his filmic arsenal to meaningfully convey Barry’s experiences. At times it feels as if the mise-en-scene literally forms around Barry, such is the extent to which Anderson embraces his central character. The aforementioned phone-call is shot in three long takes, and is one of few moments that is not underscored with music, for here is a moment where the dialogue alone suffices in revealing Barry’s loneliness. Whilst loneliness in this instance is felt through the minimalism of the frame, extreme anxiety when Lena (Emily Watson) comes to the office is imparted in quite different terms. A cacophony of sound mars Barry’s (and indeed the viewer’s) ability to stay calm, whilst in the background of the shot a crashing forklift visually represents his inner turmoil. It is here, in Anderson’s highly expressionistic approach to the subtleties of Barry’s experiences that make Punch Drunk Love so effective. Rather than allow Barry’s peculiarity to estrange, Anderson makes him an utterly empathetic character, finding the points of connection rather than alienation.
Much has been written about the use of colour in Punch Drunk Love, and for obvious reason; blue, red, and white feature heavily and are often synthesised, creating a colour scape that functions far beyond surface-level symbolism. The suggestion that Anderson uses colour to visually represent the running themes of love and loneliness is entirely valid, however it perhaps ignores the more pertinent effect of its use. That is, through his overt expressionism, Anderson is making clear that these are images entrenched within a subjectivity, and as such its main purpose becomes imparting a sense of Barry’s psychosis rather than any sort of objective narration. The apparent symbolism doesn’t constitute a further strand of meaning, but comes as a direct result of Anderson’s commitment to Barry as a character, and the imparting of a very particular mental state. The sensitivity to character and situation that’s on display in Punch Drunk Love is a familiar feature in all of Anderson’s films, and is perhaps the defining trait of his style. Whilst you could say that many A-list directors have a style that precedes the content of their individual films (the visual quirk of Wes Anderson, or Tarantino’s slickness for instance), it seems that PTA’s style is rather more fluid, and is one that aligns with the content of story. Punch Drunk Love, when compared with a film like Boogie Nights (1997), both formally and in subject matter, appear to be the products of very different filmmakers, but are joined by the intelligent treatment of the narrative’s demands. Whether it be loneliness on the level of the individual, or interconnectivity across a whole cityscape, as seen in Magnolia (1999), it is clear that Anderson caters visually to the demands of the material, rather than imposing his own sense of self.
If you haven’t seen much of Anderson’s work then Punch Drunk Love is a great place to start, it’s comic and tragic in equal measure. As for Sandler, well, it doesn’t get much better, which is a shame, but is all the more reason for this film to be treasured.
Image credit: Jürgen Fauth via Wikimedia Commons