In Boogie Nights and Magnolia, there’s an impression that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is a virtuoso who’s throwing figurative paint against a wall, seeing what sticks. As many have observed, the films feature wild tracking shots and blasts of pop music in the key of Martin Scorsese, huge casts of characters that recall Robert Altman’s sprawling panoramas, and a delicate and less tangible sense of empathy that brings to mind the films of Hal Ashby and Jonathan Demme. The vitality of these ambitious and uneven productions stems from Anderson’s willingness to walk a tightrope while juggling a couple dozen balls in the air at once, and the exhilaration resides in just how many balls he’s actually able to catch. Yet, Boogie Nights and Magnolia are also driven by a somewhat mechanically fussy ingenuity, in comparison to the filmmaker’s subsequent work.
Anderson chafes against this fussiness in Punch-Drunk Love, paring his self-conscious formality down to tell his version of a three-act romance, which might represent an intuitive urge to reconnect with the lean and astonishingly assured genre traditionalism that he displayed in his feature-length debut, Hard Eight. But Anderson is an artist rather than a journeyman, and his neurosis and inherent audacity keep muddying up the works of his romance plot. Despite its honed 95-minute running time, Punch-Drunk Love is also a vast splatter painting, sometimes literally, when the characters’ surges of emotions are represented by gorgeously diaphanous blots of color courtesy of artist Jeremy Blake. The film derives its energy from a variety of unlikely juxtapositions between tones, incidents, aesthetics, and particularly between the collaboration of the artists at its core: Anderson, composer Jon Brion, D.P. Robert Elswit, and actors Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of these people stands out of place in this roster, and he’s the center of the film, genetically informing its sensibility and gravitas.
Few films in American cinema have so piercingly captured a damaged introvert’s most crippling fear of being exposed and scrutinized, held up in front of a pitiless society and found wanting, and this perception begins with Anderson’s understanding of the commonalities that unite him and Sandler as artists. Sandler’s Barry hates himself with haunting absolution, and the actor seems relieved to be facing the demons that have often subtextually informed his performances. Sandler’s gracefully un-graceful physicality—his simultaneous largeness and smallness—has never before or again been so primordially poetic. When Barry dances a jig in a supermarket, for instance, he’s understood to be reconnecting with a long sublimated creativity, which is linked to his starved sexuality and frustration.
All of Anderson’s formal flourishes serve to put us in Barry’s emotional realm, rather than to announce themselves as tricks in the filmmaker’s toolbox. Because of the abuse he suffers at the hands of his seven sisters, Barry feels judged and trapped. When we first meet him, he’s literally cornered, crammed against the wall of his warehouse office, talking on the phone about a loophole in a frozen food promotion that would allow him to fly by plane for life for only a few thousand dollars. Barry doesn’t travel; he doesn’t do anything apart from living the sort of anonymous, quietly miserable cog’s life that defines too many of us, but the attainment of these miles is another indication of his suppressed creativity. Barry has all this energy and no one or nothing to which he can truly devote it. Throughout the film, Barry wears a sea-blue suit, which is said to be unusual for him, and this symbolic plea for attention ushers the outside world in, in all its ugliness and beauty.
Punch-Drunk Love signals the beginning of the austerity that’s since marked Anderson’s work, which many have misdiagnosed as a regression into chilliness. Anderson masters in this film a formality of repression, initiating his evolution from a dynamo into a subdued chronicler of distinctly American heartbreak. The greatest scene here involves just a few variables: Barry, a telephone, and Barry’s impersonal apartment, which complements the depressing anonymity of the other surreally oppressive L.A. settings, with their shards of white light, noir shadow, and blossoms of primary color. Barry calls a phone sex business, and Elswit’s camera nimbly follows him as he paces around his apartment in pirouettes that accentuate Barry’s desires and fear of punishment. Barry sits at his dining room table, paces into the kitchen, then into the living room and back to the kitchen, while the filmmakers squeeze him against the edges of the frame, opening up uncomfortable negative space within the image that parallels the geometry of the first shot in the warehouse.
Punch-Drunk Love has a remarkably poignant optimistic ending, but it’s these sorts of passages that stick with one, especially considering that Anderson has since abandoned such pretenses of hope. With this film, Anderson found himself as an artist, recognizing himself as a poet of alienation.
One of Punch-Drunk Love’s most striking qualities is the imagery’s blend of grit and Technicolor-infused fantasy, which simultaneously suggests the exterior and interior lives of the characters. This transfer, approved by Paul Thomas Anderson, improves the clarity and subtlety of the hard white lights from prior editions, and adds lushness to the reds, blues, and pinks. Facial detail is extraordinary, as is the detail of the various planes within the frame from the foreground to the distant background. This is a heavily textured film, reminiscent in some ways of David Lynch’s work in that one can viscerally sense the feel of the clothes worn by the characters, or the weight of objects, or the resonance of movement through space.
This tactility is also achieved in the soundtrack, of course, and the dense layering of aural stimuli is surpassingly impressive without fetishizing itself. Jon Brion’s score merges seamlessly with the heightened sound effects, mirroring the bleed of objectivity and subjectivity that’s also achieved in the imagery. The 5.1 arrangement envelopes one in a soundscape of anxiety (shrill horns and cacophonous banging) and loveliness (softer horns, barely perceptible cooing, and a reprise of Shelly Duvall’s "He Needs Me," from Robert Altman’s Popeye). An intense and gorgeous presentation.
Befitting a film that's occupied with unified randomness, the supplements here are often concerned with mood and texture in lieu of literal-minded explanation of the production. That's a noble sentiment, but the coyness is a little annoying, and many of these featurettes have been recycled from a prior DVD edition of the film. "Blood & Blossoms," an experimental short that compresses most of Punch-Drunk Love down into a 13-minute running time, with increased emphasis on the artwork of Jeremy Blake, is worth preserving, particularly for Anderson acolytes.
The brief deleted-scenes section is telling for the tone of the sequences, in which Adam Sandler plays Barry with a more confident sense of anger that recalls his overtly comic persona. A discarded montage with Barry talking on the phone with his sisters is broader and less successful than anything actually in the film, providing a window into Anderson's process of refinement. Less interesting are odds and ends such as a Mattress Man commercial with Philip Seymour Hoffman's antagonist and an NBC special on David Phillips, the real guy who netted thousands of frequent flyers miles by buying inexpensive pudding. The interviews with the principals at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival are jovial but inessential.
There's a terrific new interview with composer Jon Brion, discussing how he worked closely in tandem with Anderson to develop the score concurrently with the film itself, rather than after production had wrapped, per tradition. The result is a score that serves as Punch-Drunk Love's very biorhythm, offering a glimpse into why Anderson's productions always boast such robust and distinctive musical tapestries. A new interview with curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano shines welcome light on Blake, and a gallery of work serves to potentially introduce audiences to a talent who significantly inspired Punch-Drunk Love. Rounding out this package is a beautiful essay by Miranda July, though you may remain frustrated by the pointed absence of nearly all of the film's significant contributors.
Criterion has outfitted Paul Thomas Anderson's magical and career-redefining whatsit with a shimmering and gorgeously immersive transfer, suitably dressing it up for cultural posterity.