Paul Thomas Anderson’s films tend to be rooted in a particular time and place, and taken as a whole, his filmography could be seen as a roundabout history of American capitalism. The war of attrition between religion and commerce for the loyalty of the American soul defines There Will Be Blood, while The Master enjoins the two sides into a unified con. Inherent Vice scopes out the death of the 1960s in a rapidly consumerizing Los Angeles, while Boogie Nights sees the fallout from that transition in an epic sojourn through the porn industry, and Magnolia reconfigures Y2K fears around the threat of total emotional collapse in the new millennium. Even Anderson’s debut, Hard Eight, is steeped in a sense of economic woe, its violence predicated on squabbles over a frankly paltry amount of money that nonetheless means the world to those on the outs.
The notable exception to this continuity is 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. Where Anderson’s other movies immediately establish their settings, this film displaces itself from easy signifiers of place, time and context. Its first image, an angled long-shot of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) sitting at a desk in the corner of an empty warehouse, is dissonant in its total remove from any sense of spatial relation. Hearing a commotion outside, he goes outside and the camera shows only a narrow, blocked-off alley, at the end of which a harmonium, a 19th-century instrument, is bafflingly dropped off by a cab. Further adding to the confusion is the abrupt appearance of Lena (Emily Watson), whose British accent disrupts the American location.
Compared to the sprawling ensemble pieces that made Anderson’s name to that point, Punch-Drunk Love is not merely individualistic but oppressively rooted in its protagonist’s perspective. Barry, who suffers from intense anxiety, has spent his entire life in crippling fear of being talked about, a fear justified by his seven sisters, whose casual insults, either said to him directly or whispered fully within earshot, drive him insane. Anderson reflects that with camerawork that trades the elegant Steadicam long takes that made him famous for jittery, whip-pan motions and compositions that isolate Barry in the frame even when he is surrounded, making other people the bars in the prison he has erected in his mind. Anderson makes objective, distanced shots pulse with nervousness. In one scene, after a date with Lena, Barry awkwardly misses his chance at a kiss when dropping her off, then attempts to return to her room, only to get lost in the labyrinthine hallways of her complex. As he sprints around nondescript corridors, his increasingly frantic mood contrasts with the unchanging calm of the shots, with only the increased clip of the editing to give away Barry’s terror.
The sound design (rendered with fresh depth in Criterion’s new Blu-ray) is arguably more overwhelming than the images. In groups, every single voice can be clearly heard amid the din whenever Barry’s name comes up, reflecting how precisely he can hone in on someone talking about him. And what he overhears is torturous, with his sisters sharing embarrassing stories or putting him down to others, piling onto his anxiety with the proof that his paranoia is justified. That his first sexual experience in the film is a pathetic call to a phone-sex line that turns out to be an extortion scam only completes his total sensory assault, constantly forcing him to handle the stress of receiving threatening phone calls that add to the cacophony of his misery and shame. Jon Brion’s score, which mixes traditional orchestration, occasional songs and the intrusion of dissonant elements like didgeridoo and metallic percussion, never sticks to any one sound for long, setting the film adrift in Barry’s tension and longing.
The stylistic fluctuations of the score are borne out in the unlikely twists and turns of the film, which gradually emerges from Barry’s insular nightmare into a romantic comedy that harks back to old Technicolor musicals, and to no era of moviemaking that ever existed. When Barry follows Lena to Hawaii, they reunite in a backlit shot, kissing in front of a sunny exterior of pure-blue sea, soft-focus pink haze and a green bar of well-manicured grass that collectively looks like a cheery Rothko painting. Walking back to Lena’s hotel room, an iris effect zooms in on their hands as they join in a silent-era bit of cheek. But as Barry juggles his newfound love with the fallout from the phone-sex scheme, the old-school vibe is rendered in Anderson’s manic language, giving even the throwback romance a present-day feel, albeit in strange terms.
The pursuits of monetary satisfaction and social belonging that run through Anderson’s other movies are defined by context, but Barry’s ultimate quest for love gives Punch-Drunk Love a timeless quality. That Barry never changes out of his blue suit helps to disrupt any sense of days passing, denying the most basic sense of continuity. And whatever geographical setting can be gleaned from the glimpses of Los Angeles seen throughout the film are themselves upended by Barry’s scheme of exploiting a frequent-flyer-mile promotion by buying up pudding, the goal of which is to give him enough miles to go wherever he wants to for the rest of his life. The film’s happy ending is the promise of leaving behind what minimal roots Barry has to his surroundings, and that may be worth as much to him as the prospect of romantic fulfillment.