Release: 21st November 2016
Struggling to cope with his erratic temper, novelty toilet plunger salesman Barry Egan spends his days collecting frequent-flyer-mile coupons and dodging the insults of his seven sisters. The promise of a new life emerges when Barry inadvertently attracts the affections of a mysterious woman named Lena, but their budding relationship is threatened when he falls prey to the swindling operator of a phone sex line and her deranged boss.
Paul Thomas Anderson can be called many things, but conventional is definitely not one of them. This is a man whose most ‘accessible’ films are about porn stars, a self-defeating oil baron and his relationship with a potentially duplicitous sociopathic preacher, and a softly spoken novelty plunger salesman who spends his spare time buying pudding. Anderson has rained frogs on William H. Macey, sent Joaquin Phoenix on not one but two psychedelic trips (once while skewing Scientologist origins and the other in 70’s Venice Beach), and more recently sent Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke through an endless maze of doors only to end up sleeping in a cave. Spike Lee might label films as “joints”, but Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly the one smoking them. Yet somehow, he has still created a collection of engaging, memorable, and technically enriching contributions to modern cinema.
Punch-Drunk Love has always been the unsung hero of Anderson’s back catalogue. Maybe because it was the least edgy of his works, or possibly because his main star (an, until then, mostly comedic Adam Sandler) was an unexpected straight man in an otherwise quirky reality. But Punk-Drunk Love is, all the same, a shining example of just how brilliant and astute Anderson can be even when speaking in his most overt voice. There is always an air of the modern fairy-tale about Anderson in the period when he made this film. Punch-Drunk Love was the aftertaste of Magnolia, and is the precursor to There Will Be Blood. This was a time when Anderson was essentially transitioning from the thematic impact of humanitarian ideology (people can heal us) to the more destructive tendencies of our species. Adam Sandler’s central character Barry Egan represents both these worlds as a man searching to make sense of the broken, lonely and frustrating domain of California (a city where Anderson often rests his characters), in an effort to find himself. From the discarded Harmonium (something he learns to master, as with love) to the constant need to exploit a promotional flaw in gaining frequent flyer miles (a desire to move forward), Barry is all about progress as his emotional desire and physical stagnation gradually move in sync through developing a relationship with the physically adept yet emotional frozen Lena (played beautifully by Emma Watson). Barry quite literally starts the films on hold and ends it on the promise of travel.
Colour and sound feature heavily, with composer Jon Brion since coming to be one of the finest musicians in film, and cinematographer Robert Elswit going on to beat Roger Deakins in the 2008 Oscar race for his work on There Will Be Blood. From the pre-J.J. Abrams lens flares to the beautiful language of blue and red and so on, Punch-Drunk Love remains a sensory cacophony of intuitive storytelling. This is amplified to completion by Criterion’s transfer of the film, as the luscious soundtrack and rich colour palette are honoured in reaching full potential.
The greatest tragedy now is seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in full bloom as the film’s deplorable antagonist Dean Trumbell. Paul Thomas Anderson has always known how to reach the depths of his actor’s abilities, and Hoffman’s “SHUT! SHUT! SHUT UP!” rant is a career highlight. There is range here that goes beyond bullish behaviour, as we see that by confronting his abusers, Barry is able to humanise them. Someone who sounds so big, so loud, so scary on the phone is really just a guy who sells mattresses. But this is total Hoffman, and that loss is all the deeper because of it.
Although Anderson had before and has since made better films, albeit only slightly, Punch-Drunk Love sits in the sweet spot between two of his greatest works. Consider it the middle instalment in a trilogy of American folklore, and you’ll begin to see this absolute gem of a movie as something more than a uniquely cute little rom-com about anger management, phone sex and the ever growing need to eat the eyeballs of the one you love. It’s also the most lucid narrative from PTA you’re ever likely to get.
Film Grade: A-
The backbone of what Criterion source for their release has previously seen the light of day with earlier DVD releases of the film.
However, it wouldn’t be Criterion if there weren’t at least a couple of new takes on the title being celebrated. Interviews with Jon Brion are followed nicely by some behind-the-scenes footage of his Recording Sessions for the film. Brion is an odd duck, but he talks the way an artist paints, and seeing him work is an absolute pleasure.
Meanwhile, Conversations With Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano about the art of Jeremy Blake will rest solely on your interest in the topic. The pair are far from an engaging watch and / or listen, but they do speak fondly of Blake, and offer informed speculation on his methods and purposes.
Features Grade: B-
The transfer alone is worth your money. What supplements you may or may not have seen before are just a bonus.