NB: bits of this could be considered to be spoilers, although that’s somewhat irrelevent to this film
P.T. Anderson’s previous films all included small themes of finding that spark of love in the oddest places, in unusual fashions, with very diverse people. In ‘Hard Eight’, a pair of young, sad Vegas-ites find love and must fight their way through to keep it. In ‘Boogie Nights’, a suprisingly close-knit family emerges from the excess of the 70’s porn-scene. In ‘Magnolia’, a cop and a messed-up druggie find each other, while a son & a father reconnect. In each of these strange films, quirky love is a theme. ‘
Punch Drunk Love is in many ways simply the logical extension of those previous explorations. Barry, a profoundly disturbed and repressed man is the object of affection of an odd, but seemingly emotionally stable woman, Lena. He is incredibly needing of love, but with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old, not at all ready for it. His tantrums and inability to express himself are really quite frightening. They are played for laughs, but I think more in the sense of humiliation rather than sympathy. I found this a marked shift in P.T. Anderson’s treatment of his characters. Previously, he has been universally sympathetic for his lead characters. Sympathy certainly remains, but it seemed more for the blossoming of love than for the actions of the characters.
Like his other films, the direction in this film is precise and incredibly controlled. Like Altman, Anderson seems comfortable in sprawling pictures, but while Altman’s films always feel somewhat of a mess, held only together through force of will, Anderson’s films always feel tightly controlled and measures to me. The cinematography is beautiful, lush, saturated with color and lights, blurred out to hint and the transition watercolor effects even during the scenes. The sound, however, is what really makes the film. Like no other working director I can think of, P.T. Anderson makes silence work so well. The scoring was used sparingly, but always in tune with Barry’s emotional state. While he was calm, it was silent. As he got more and more anxious, the music became more and more chaotic. At points where he lost it, the music was loud and bombastic, disapearing once he had calmed down again. Lena’s theme, all soft, cautious and calming let us know immediately what to expect from her, and when mixed in with the cacaphony that made up Barry’s emotions, let us understand musically why they were destined to be.
Normally, I hate to feel manipulated in films. It’s why I like the Dogma approach so much (although that in itself is of course a manipulative conceit). P.T. Anderson is, however, perhaps my favourite director currently, as well as being a very manipulative director. The difference, I think, is that where your average Hollywood film has essentially 2 devices to tell you how to react: scoring & focus, P.T. Anderson uses a much larger range of materials to point you in the right direction. And tellingly, I do feel that he is pointing you towards a particular reaction, while still allowing you to feel what you would naturally (for instance, in this film, there is comedy, but you can also be disturbed by it).
So indeed, ‘Punch Drunk Love’ is a wonderful, smart film; Adam Sandler is an excellent leading man & and the sad chemistry between he and Emily Watson works beatifully. But I don’t think it’s a romantic comedy. Perhaps a romantic tragedy would be more apt (though not in the Greek sense).