With two images of social collapse under his belt, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson wisely made the decision not to repeat himself with his first 21st century film. Magnolia was akin to dropping a bunch of loose human animals in a preserve just to experiment, even if Anderson never lost his personal compassion, never diminished his characters to mere subjects of analysis. Magnolia was also a monolith, a messianic and almost apocalyptic vision of life at the end of the 20th century that (fairly successfully) interpreted depth as only a question of breadth. Understanding its subject was equated with conquering any and all subjects, consuming monoliths with a hubristic and unerring pull to complicate through augmentation, amplification, and magnification. Which, glorious though that film was, also sacrificed a certain intimacy, out-sizing the boldness of its landscape and its “visionary” status at the expense of its ability to register untold personal truths, to intimate the unvoiced longings and desires at the core of its tale but sometimes drowned out by the grandness of the camera, the monumentality of the sound, the exorbitance of the design.
Rather than further affixing and attaching new sub-plots and dramas though, Punch-Drunk Love is a classical test-case of addition by subtraction, a work that annexes one pure crystal of emotion in Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), themed-plunger store operator and manic rage-aholic, and his burgeoning relationship with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who is admittedly underdeveloped and essentially a cipher for Egan’s capacity for genuine affection. And then Anderson shatters that crystal, visually, aurally, and temporally, right in our faces via its unhinged mise-en-scene, nervous soundscape, and apprehensive, restless editing, slowly holding to scenes and then skittering up quickly past others. This film dedicates itself entirely to sense and tempo, to full expression of a panic-stricken core, bottling up all of the peripheral frenzied fracas of Boogie Nights and Magnolia into a central body of agitation that Sandler, in the role of his life, then unbottles around him. His role is akin to reimagination or iconographic deflowering, essentializing his by-2002-infamous screen persona and letting it loose without the safety net of a clear purpose for the duration of 90 minutes. The ambiguity of his goal – “true love”, or even “momentary compassion” – proves insufferable, possibly even impossible, for him, and Sandler uses his persona’s egomaniacal thirst for clarity to run rampant on the screen without sabotaging the essential tragedy and confusion of his character’s place in the world.
In this extremely short film, less than half the length of Magnolia, Anderson, Sandler, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and an incredible team of sound editors and mixers accomplish much more than the highly trumpeted color-coding the film is so famous for. Out of a story that essentially amounts to any number of other romances, they conjure an entire expressionistic milieu, effusing moods – or a mood, more accurately – of simultaneous buoyancy and frenzy, or raving-mad disorganization and romantic liberation, radiating both the emancipating and disturbing potentials inherent in disturbing one’s routine, as Sandler’s Barry does when meeting Lena. While ostensibly more streamlined or focused than his earlier films, Punch-Drunk Love is all the more irregular and arrhythmic, uniting positive and negative energies and emotions in brackish fellowship (but not a consensus) where other films locate only antipathy between them. Punch-Drunk Love is all kinesthetics, a sensory overload as an emotional short circuit, souring normal cinematic protocol with maniacal excitement by rattling us around in the centrifuge of Barry’s head.
There are many effective gestures to this end. For instance, Anderson mobilizes the lateral expanse and ensuing emptiness of his screen – previously a way to mimic the expansive, world-spanning bigness of the ‘70s films Anderson aped in the ‘90s – as its own form of visual confinement, dwarfing Egan in a frame that simultaneously exposes his loneliness and swallows him whole. It instills a milieu of personal alienation further reflected in and disrupted by the surges of primary color and outbursts of cage-rattling sound, as if the color and sound are supposed to give life to Egan in the midst of his loneliness but only collapse him further.
Most expressive, and less freighted-with-importance, is the film’s terrific sonic palate, boldly given free reign to run amok across the telescopic screen and surround us from all sides, thoughtfully deforming the images and recombining them in ulterior ways. While Anderson’s earlier films were all Altman-esque talk from multiple corners of the screen, swirling us up in a tornado of sound from unmoored sources, Punch-Drunk Love smothers us with the tranquility of genuine quiet, a new-ish tool in Anderson’s kit: a willingness to manipulate emptiness and absence rather than to crowd them out with visual panache and copious dialogue. All the better to refract the muffled miscommunications between unstable people (in Anderson’s universe, this is every person) in search of an exit, or an entrance, into the human race. And then to brutalize us with sonic jabs right into our psyches when its obsessive, atonal score, all glass-shards and punch-drunk motions, flare up. A reperatory playhouse of near-outre, one-quarter-avant-garde bursts of spasmodic comedy (compared to Inherent Vice’s shambolic comedy) mobilized for a sensorium of extraordinary loneliness, Punch-Drunk Love is seismically effective in its own idiom.
Still, if the film’s style is a wonderful short circuit in that it induces stagnancy and then shocks us into life, it is also a short circuit in that it sometimes feels like a cop-out or an easy excuse, a way of expressing the inexpressible and describing the undescribable, an incredibly-mounted expressionistic shorthand for feelings which might be more elusive and less pummeling in the hands of a more nuanced director. Obviously, this is something of an unfair critique; expression is necessarily the lexicon of all great cinema, a visual medium. But Punch-Drunk Love also uses loaded dice in the form of cinematic trickery, optic illusions in the form of color-coding that amount to much less than they propose. The boxy, bold geometric shapes frequently overtaking the background exteriorize interior trauma, or terror, or frustration, but they also limit other options, and they certainly foretell easy outs for a film that wants to occupy the bones of pure-formalism but lacks more textured or telling tools of the trade to formalize with.
It’s great, basically, but limited in its greatness. The introduction to Anderson’s – or Elswit’s – kaleidoscopic but brazenly limited color palate – acid-streaks of blue and red up and down the screen, neither literally symbolizing something nor completely and boundlessly escaping any symbolic interpretation – makes a great first impression. They visualize a violent mind searching for stability, clarity, and coherence but also the freedom of disorder, two goals which may be irreconcilable. But from the opening gambit, the film quickly triples down on the same tricks for fear of having to try anything new, or to dismember its perfection. It achieves little with color that isn’t already on the table from the first scene.
Worse still is the insularity of its narrative – which is thematically justified owing to Barry’s hideous insularity, but still noxious – when it comes to gender, less because of Anderson’s comparative disinterest in Lena than his very clear and explicit interest in sculpting Barry’s seven sisters as gorgons and harpies, in that order, each of them predominantly useful only because they provide a shorthand for characterizing Lena in a more positive light. It’s a fairly nasty-minded maneuver which only drive into relief the shortsightedness of Anderson’s comparative empathy with, or at least desire to understand, Barry, and an unfortunate but somewhat-structuring pockmark on a mostly incredible but sometimes over-determined stylistic achievement.