Thursday, 27 May 2010

Retrospective Review: 'Punch-Drunk Love'

Here is the first in a planned series of retrospective reviews of some of favourite movies. I have chosen to start this series with a look at a movie which is depicted in this blog's heading and which I have frequently mentioned in my posts:

‘Punch-Drunk Love’ (2002) is the fourth feature film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Adam Sandler, who became a major box-office draw in the latter half of the 1990’s with broad and brash man-child comedies like ‘The Waterboy’ (1998) and ‘Big Daddy’ (1999). But it should come as no surprise that ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ isn’t a slapstick comedy farce, however, as Anderson had come to prominence with such bold and unusual films as ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997) and ‘Magnolia’ (1999) and would go on to make the dark, satirical oil-epic ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007), which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the 80th Academy Awards and also earned Anderson a nomination for directing (although it was defeated in both categories by the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men’).

‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is not an easy film to summarise, although the surface level “plot” is admittedly rather slender. Barry Egan (Sandler) is a nervous and isolated man who is unable to express himself emotionally, a fact which leads to sudden fits of violent rage (a typical Sandler archetype, though played much darker here). Barry soon meets Lena (Emily Watson) and they share a mutual attraction, but Barry feels uncomfortable talking to women and avoids the situation. To confront this issue Barry takes the step of calling a sex hotline, however this leads the hotline’s supervisor (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to attempt to blackmail Barry, with violent repercussions for everyone involved. Against this fraught backdrop Barry and Lena begin a romance. Explaining the story like this will give you some idea of what happens, but very little idea what the film is about.

Whilst Todd McCarthy of Variety found the film to be “marked by audacious strokes of directorial bravado” and Roger Ebert found it “exhilarating”, some critics were less enthusiastic when the film was released, with Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer expressing the belief that “‘Punch-Drunk Love’ buries a terrific performance by Adam Sandler under a heap of faux cleverness, meaningless symbolism and irritating mannerisms.” The accusations of “meaningless symbolism” and “faux cleverness” are probably directed at the way Anderson’s film uses symbols and visual motifs to represent feelings and themes. For example, early on in the film Barry witnesses a massive, unexplained, unrealistic (and never again referenced) car crash, which is immediately followed by a taxi cab leaving a harmonium on the sidewalk. For me, the car crash represents Barry’s heightened anxiety at the outside world, which he is afraid of and unable to relate to, and the harmonium becomes a method of catharsis during the film's most stressful moments, representing beauty and a reason to keep on. These moments serve to make ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ a genuinely cinematic experience with Anderson painting on a large canvas, covering the emotional rather than the literal.

The real triumph of ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is that the viewer is forced to experience Barry’s emotional state and to see situations through his eyes. For example, in an early scene Barry attends a gathering with his seven sisters in which he loses the plot and completely destroys a glass patio door. Nothing the sisters say during this sequence is malicious or intended to rile Barry at all, in fact his sisters can’t understand why he acts the way he does towards them. However, the scene is cleverly devised so that the viewer experiences what they are saying the way Barry does: the sisters are loud and their voices overlap as they tell stories about his childhood which they think are amusing and endearing but which he interprets as a personal attack. When he destroys the glass door it is without question a disturbing, seemingly unprovoked overreaction, but one which we are made to understand and empathise with due to the mounting anxiety and hysteria created by the mood to the sequence.

The experience of watching ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is visceral, emotional and often horribly tense, thanks in no small part to (frequent Anderson collaborator) Jon Brion, whose excellent score plays a huge part in creating the film’s atmosphere which can change quickly from terrified anxiety to pure elation, often within moments. Likewise the cinematography of Robert Elswit (who has worked on every film of Anderson’s since 1996’s ‘Hard Eight’) is breathtaking. The film’s use of colour is stunning with a muted blue colour palette, which contrasts brilliantly with some of the later scenes which display a much more intense, bright and sharply defined use of colour. These elements compliment the stunning multi-coloured visual interludes designed by the late Jeremy Blake, which feel as though they are being painted by Jon Brion’s music. All these elements complement each other so wonderfully that ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is perhaps the most perfect movie yet by a director who seems destined to be hailed as an American master.

1 comment:

  1. This is a striking and beautiful film. Outstanding in every department. It's wonderful in many different ways. It also occurred
    to me that it's possible the most unusual treatment for a
    romance since annie hall. Both films play with
    form and convention and both excell in every department. Of
    course they're also very different too, certainly Punch Drunk Love is more overtly serious. But what other films have taken such a unique road to romantic entanglement?