It has been firmly established by now that Paul Thomas Anderson is a formidable young director at the forefront of American cinema, but with his most recent film, Punch Drunk Love, it can be argued that Anderson has taken a seminal step into the realm of auteur. Prior to Punch Drunk Love Anderson’s first three films – Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999) – dealt with themes of alienation, regret, dysfunctional families and, ultimately, a character’s search for someplace to call “home”. Each film ends with slight optimism that is nonetheless overshadowed by its transience.
Punch Drunk Love is an evolution of these films, while sharing similar thematic issues; it attempts to tell its story semantically. Unlike the others, Punch Drunk Love creates its own distinct cinematic vocabulary (shedding influences, whom he cites, such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme) becoming the first film he can call distinctively “his own“. With trenchant use of mise en scène, Anderson integrates cinematography, sound, production design, costumes and locations to offer a purely subjective experience seen through the eyes and emotions of his protagonist Barry Egan (Adam Sandler).
Punch Drunk Love is by far Anderson’s most complex film, challenging its audience to consider choices of color, to battle through unconventional sound design, and to find meaning in objects that may initially appear to be irrelevant. One could suggest the central image of the film is the abstract artwork of Jeremy Blake. These abstract montages immediately introduce the audience to a more venturesome, ambiguous approach unseen in Anderson’s works thus far, an emergence into a more conceptual form of storytelling. The uneasiness of these montages, and their sheer beauty, within seconds captures the mood of the film. They serve not only as brilliant segues within the film’s narrative but also contribute to a larger purpose of imbuing the viewer with an intense, discombobulated sensation that can only be described as “punch drunk”.