American adolescence is a marathon of milestones. In those wilderness years between the end of childhood and the onset of adulthood, every birthday seems to bring some seismic new authority—now you can drive; now you can buy cigarettes and a lottery ticket; now you can buy your own beer. But there’s another milestone that, while less often heralded, may be, at least to some of us, the most significant of all: on your 17th birthday, you can buy your own ticket to an R-rated movie, and enter that darkened theater unsupervised.
There’s something solemn and almost mystical about gaining access to a new tier of films. We go to the movies to gain insight, references, social cues that we can use to navigate the world. There’s so much that we experience first on a screen—faraway places, unfamiliar lifestyles, what it looks like to hurt someone and be hurt, what it looks like to love and be loved—and being granted entrance to grown-up movies is like being handed a manual for the adult experience, one you believe you’ve earned by virtue of this personal epoch shift.
That shift happened for me in 2002, and my friends and I spent that year gorging ourselves on the grown-up films of the day. We rushed out to see Adaptation, About Schmidt, Road to Perdition, and afterwards we furrowed our brows over Sprites at Chili’s and earnestly discussed the experience, test-driving analytical terms we’d learned in English class. It felt satisfyingly adult, but I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one with a nagging voice in the back of my head: would’ve been great to see Spider-Man or The Two Towers again instead…
I never voiced that feeling aloud, or even gave it full voice in my head. Because that longing for juvenile art reminded me of the most disturbing truth imaginable: despite this leap towards adulthood, I still felt like me.
One chilly Saturday night that October, my friend Josh and I visited a creaky old arthouse near his home on the south shore of Boston. I’d recently read a review in Entertainment Weekly—the publication of record to my high school mind—that described something fascinating: an Adam Sandler movie for grownups.
“The Sandler we see is, in essence, the same Sandler we have come to know,” Owen Gleiberman had advised, “except that the movie isn’t nudging us in the ribs to laugh at him.” To young men with almost no understanding of cinema except that they loved it, this was a thrilling and fascinating notion.
Ninety-five minutes later, Josh and I burst out of the theater enraged. That movie wasn’t just bad, it was appalling, offensive. We wanted to call the director and chew him out for wasting our time with that faux-artsy bullshit, and any intelligent and rational viewer would obviously agree. We shook with anxious fury as we stepped into the ice cream parlor next door—it was cold out, and Josh’s mom wouldn’t be there to pick us up for another 10 minutes.
Punch-Drunk Love—Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth film as a writer/director, released when he was just 32 years old—puts you on uncertain footing from the first frame. With no title cards to orient us, we cut in on Barry (Sandler) hunched in the corner of the screen, making a phone call in what appears to be a barren warehouse. He mumbles about the finer points of some corporate fine print, but before we can get the drift, he’s distracted by a strange sound. He walks out onto a dreary corner of predawn Los Angeles and looks in vain for the source. In the distance, a car hits a curb and flips, a visceral and horrific accident that could well be lethal, observed with a detachment that emphasizes nothing. Barry flinches, and then a taxi pulls up, stops long enough for someone to place a harmonium on the ground in front of him, and speeds off.
This avalanche of input is accomplished in three minutes, and we scramble to organize all we’ve seen—was the strange sound relevant? (It wasn’t.) Will that accident be relevant? (It won’t.)
These opening minutes feature no score, and camerawork that’s mostly neutral and restrained. Over the next few minutes, the viewer can start to acclimate to this cold tone. But then, as happens so often in this film, as soon as you gain a foothold, the ground starts to shift under you.
The eerie vibe lasts about 10 minutes, and then the score finally kicks in. A calliope-tinged waltz brings a sense of grace to the proceedings for, oh, about two minutes. Then that dreaminess is broken by an abstract interlude—shifting colors scored by an atonal aural collage—which is itself then broken when we jump into Barry’s morning as a distributor of toilet plungers. We watch him move about his warehouse in long, smooth takes, all set to a score of thudding timpani and various taps and creaks, which creates a mood of teeth-gnashing anxiety even before we witness the assaultive phone calls and potential for workplace accidents that surround Barry at all times.
As an adolescent, I thrived on the familiar. I fancied myself mature enough to handle avant-garde art, but in a pre-streaming world, I had little exposure to films that truly challenged me. I would pore over descriptions of Eraserhead and Putney Swope, wistfully trying to conjure them in my mind, but whenever I persuaded my parents to drive me over to Video to Go, the selection I perused had “daring indie provocation” defined as Chasing Amy—which, though I would never have admitted it aloud, did provide some shameful measure of relief; that Eraserhead sounded pretty freaky. In that old seaside arthouse, though, I experienced for the first time a full-scale assault on my understanding of what a movie could look and feel like, and I had no way to process a surging tide of intense emotion.
Punch-Drunk Love continues to swing wildly between extremes. Over another stretch of about 10 minutes, we experience brutal rage (when Barry is overwhelmed during a date with Emily Watson’s Lena, a woman seemingly out of his league, he steps into the bathroom and kicks in the stall doors, grunting with volatile distress), we experience achingly sincere emotion (when the date ends with Lena unexpectedly calling Barry back up to her apartment for a kiss, he sprints down the hall like a man on fire rushing towards an extinguisher, underscored by strings and accordions straight out of an Audrey Hepburn romance), and we experience stark terror (after the date, Barry is accosted by extortionists and flees on foot as they pursue with hurled invective).
And I do mean we experience these extremes, rather than observing them, as Anderson uses every tool at his disposal to put us directly within Barry’s feverish worldview: When the score is oppressively percussive, we’re infected with Barry’s own excruciating stress, and when the score soars with romance under externally mundane events, we’re reminded of the heart-shaking significance of this moment in his life. When a shot goes agonizingly long without the relief of a cut, we’re left stranded along with Barry wondering when this anguish might end, but when a scene is shattered by a jagged flurry of cuts to accompany the introduction of some new character or information, we’re stranded again as both we and Barry struggle to process this sudden influx of input. And when a frightening outburst of Barry’s is shot with cold objectivity, we become implicated as Barry then turns to see everyone—ourselves included—staring at him, reminding us, somehow even more keenly from an outer vantage than if we were within his, how lonely it feels to lose control when everyone else has retained it.
For a young man trained on traditional film grammar, never forced to sort out provocative juxtapositions, this was all too much. Three-quarters of the way through the film, I broke. As Barry and Lena lay in bed on the verge of consummation, whispering flirtatious threats of violence—“I’m looking at your face and…I just wanna fucking smash it with a sledgehammer.” “I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them.”—my discomfort flipped into revulsion. I’d made every effort to engage with this movie, and now I felt mocked, a sting that burned all the more for my low-humming fear that I was still too immature, and so worthy of that mockery. I built a wall between myself and the screen just before the finale erupted in a crescendo of cruelty, rage, courage, and love, numbing myself in the nick of time. Rather than grapple with any of my intense responses, I made a simple ruling: this was the worst movie I had ever seen.
Three months later, I went off to a new school, three hours from home. It was my idea, an attempt to shake some measure of courage and confidence into my life, but as my departure approached, I started experiencing explosive bursts of emotion. One night, seized by something I could neither understand nor articulate, I punched a wall, shattering the plastic casing around the light switch. I was shocked at how much damage I could do on a volatile impulse, and my anger melted into bitter self-loathing.
When I arrived and started settling into my new dorm, my new roommate and I tried to bond through that age-old young man’s ritual of comparing pop culture tastes. I mentioned that I had recently seen the worst movie ever made: Punch-Drunk Love.
“You probably didn’t understand it,” my roommate sniffed. He hadn’t seen it, but he knew it was artsy stuff.
“Yes I did!” I spat back. “And there was nothing to understand!”
I didn’t have the vocabulary to defend my opinion, only the memory of my amorphous distress. But before I could gather my thoughts, I was overcome with shame at being accused of intellectual inferiority. This was the imposter syndrome that I had crossed states to escape. But the invisible infection couldn’t be shaken that easily.
Slowly but surely, in fits and starts, I kept growing up. I was in college when Anderson released his next film, There Will Be Blood. I tagged along with two more enthusiastic friends, and while I expected a dreary historical epic, I was startled by how strange and lithe the movie was, shocked that it could have come from the director of the worst movie I’d ever seen. I was in grad school when Anderson released his follow-up, The Master, and I watched it alone out of tentative curiosity—then rushed back out immediately with friends, eager to share this enigmatic bruiser of a film. Before long, I was routinely citing it as my favorite movie.
I doubled back to his earlier films; I loved both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but they felt like the work of a different artist entirely, one less sure on his feet and more indebted to his influences than the one who’d produced these singular masterpieces in the past decade. Falling in love with his remaining body of work, though, never sparked any interest in reconsidering Punch-Drunk Love; I remembered everything I’d hated about it. But I was nagged by curiosity as to how this little film I recalled as so spiteful and ugly might serve as a link between these two eras in his work. When it showed up on Netflix, I finally bit the bullet, pressing play with the apprehension of a spurned lover at risk of being hurt all over again.
The intellectual response was the same: I have never seen anything like this. But as I experienced all the same whiplash that unmoored me a decade earlier, the emotional response was flipped, leaving me breathless with joy. Where before I had seen nothing but a haze of ugliness, I could now sort and compartmentalize the stylistic juxtapositions, and the result was one of the richest viewing experiences I’d ever had.
Early on, there’s something approaching the kind of conventional joke I had once expected from a grown-up Adam Sandler movie. In the middle of the first stressful warehouse set piece, Barry offers to demonstrate a new non-breakable plunger for potential buyers. He smashes the plunger on the table, and it shatters in a geyser of particles. He remarks, “OK, this was one of the old ones.” That moment could come from a comedy of any style, but a conventional one would use editing and sound design to help us process the joke. Here, the moment is only one note in a symphony of anxiety and it’s played so deadpan that it almost crosses the line into anti-comedy. On first viewing, I was so behind the 8-ball I would barely have registered the opportunity to laugh.
I now had the benefit of Anderson’s full filmography to decode the sequence. Each of his films has a prankster’s spirit that evinces an admirable lack of pretension. Even the towering Old Testament-style epic There Will Be Blood was largely influenced, he claims in interviews, by Tom and Jerry and Spy vs. Spy. That willingness to subvert genre expectation is a large part of what makes him so appealing as an artist. While some “serious” filmmakers feel the need to saturate their dramas with unvarying solemnity, Anderson has the confidence to play with every shade of tone available, knowing that this variance will make each disparate element pop to maximum effect.
When a bleak drama is subverted by jolts of laughter, it’s a relief; comedy subverted by unvarnished pain and distress, though, is a much more acquired taste. Watching Punch-Drunk Love now, I marvel at the unbearably tense warehouse scenes because I recognize the puckish spark and unique vision in that discordant cinematic symphony. But as an adolescent, I didn’t yet have the necessary experience and context to laugh along with provocation. Feeling mocked, I responded with a very adolescent outrage.
From my current vantage a decade and a half removed, though, my adolescent response strikes me as appropriate. Josh and I weren’t just irritated in 2002, we were rattled to our cores in ways we could only process with agitated babbling and shrill jokes. That disturbed intensity, it seems so clear now, was an unconscious attempt to control the narrative for why we felt how we did, to assure ourselves that we were sophisticated cinephiles with complete perspective on our revulsion. But if we’d truly had perspective, we would have been recognized the truth too awful to reckon with in that moment: that Punch-Drunk Love functions on a very specific level for adolescent boys, one so precise and intense that it’s easier to look away from than to accept. It’s simultaneously an expression of fantasies they don’t dare express, and a bleak realization of their darkest fears.
Each of Barry’s defining traits perfectly matches the profile of a typical adolescent boy. He’s agonizingly uncomfortable in his own skin, constantly shifting posture and expression in search of some elusive social ease. His trademark primary-blue suit, which appears at first to be a flourish of heightened production design, is quickly revealed to be a deliberate affectation—when an employee asks why he’s wearing a suit, Barry responds, “I bought one. I thought it would be nice…and I’m not exactly sure why.” I would wager most adolescent boys have experimented with similar sartorial trademarks in hopes of crystallize their identity—Maybe I’ll be a hat guy, maybe I’ll be a Chuck Taylors guy. On that chilly October night when I first watched Punch-Drunk Love, I can say with virtual certainty that I was wearing the canvas jacket I’d recently festooned with carefully selected pins and patches, and which I would wear daily for the next several years, convinced that as long as I wore something distinctive, I could project the illusion of a sense of self.
But Barry’s emotional troubles are more severe than social anxiety; he seems plagued by turbulent pubescent hormones, leading to mood swings that are unbecoming in a teenager but horrifying in an adult. When he’s teased by his sisters during a party, his bruised feelings surge so hot that he punches out the panes of a sliding glass door. Moments later, he confesses to his brother-in-law, “I don’t like myself sometimes,” then collapses into sobs, clasping his face as though to literally hold himself together, and lurches away moaning, “I’m sorry.” There’s a dark comedy to the sequence, but it rings recognizable to me now in a way I couldn’t have allowed myself to see as a teenager. I remember the snap into destructive rage that made me break my parents’ light switch, and I remember so often wrestling with a shame over my very existence as I struggled to imagine where I might fit into the world. Some alarm must have triggered in my teenage subconscious watching this film—there’s a chance you could feel this way forever.
At my darkest moments, this alienation convinced me I might be unworthy of romantic love. Barry clearly never outgrew this fear, and it sparks the twin plot strands that braid into a vision of simultaneous fantasy and terror. When his sister suggests introducing him to Lena, he instantly tries to sabotage the potential setup: “Yeah, I don’t wanna do that!” he responds with a sort of shocked awe. “I don’t do stuff like that!” It’s so much easier, as I knew all too well at 17, to avoid trying than it is to invite the inevitable pain of rejection.
But Barry aches for connection, so he calls a phone sex line late one night. He finds brief satisfaction for his lonely urges in the operator’s unnaturally erotic voice, unzipping his pants in a tense hunch at her direct order when he can’t delay it any longer. The next morning, she calls back and begins extorting him, a call he takes in a tight hallway, literally boxed in. It’s the realization of any anxious virgin’s darkest fear: if you accept anyone’s offer of help alleviating your loneliness, you’ll pay for it.
The extortion follows Barry throughout the rest of the film, first in phone calls that seem almost supernaturally able to track his location, then in the team of enforcers who accost him after his shockingly successful date with Lena. The fact that this blackmail threatens to destroy what seems like Barry’s first real shot at love only heightens the tragedy from an adolescent perspective.
Lena is so kind, engaging, and assertive in her desire for Barry that she’s not so much too good to be true as possibly divine. She’s the platonic ideal of a first girlfriend, the kind of girl your mom would love but who’ll eagerly participate in your most embarrassing bedroom desire (say, Barry’s urge to whisper violent threats as foreplay). She’s the teenage ideal, and this miracle is put at risk because just days earlier Barry accepted his unworthiness of love and paid for sexual relief. It’s a perfectly calculated recipe for teenage despair.
We learn very little about Lena, and why she might pursue Barry with such intense focus despite his initial resistance. Her nigh-supernatural goodness does beg the question of whether she represents a complete character; we’re left to fill in the blanks about her, and while Watson’s performance paints a vibrant portrait, she’s certainly thinly sketched on the page. But in a story that places us in the mindset of an overgrown adolescent, a preternaturally perfect love interest seems appropriate. How many adolescent boys are actually capable of considering the objects of their affection as three-dimensional beings? If the happy ending, the promise of a future with Lena, offers Barry the chance to finally leave adolescence behind, then the perspective it takes to actually deserve Lena, to see her as a complex person, is a door that opens as the credits roll—a door that I, as an adolescent identifying with Barry so strongly that I repressed it as a coping mechanism, would be only dimly aware of for years to come.
A question has nagged me since I first revisited Punch-Drunk Love: was my old roommate right? Did I, in fact, not understand this movie on first viewing? With a few more years’ perspective and many more viewings under my belt, I don’t think so. I may now have the context to recognize Anderson’s goals, but that doesn’t mean I watched the film incorrectly before. Films aren’t cold and static objects. They’re dynamic organisms, built to provoke emotional responses, and as long as our inner landscapes can change, a film will change with us. You can watch a film until you’ve memorized every inflection of every line reading, and still be caught off guard on the hundredth viewing thanks to some new significance that couldn’t have coalesced before you became the person you are today. A final, definitive understanding of a movie is as elusive as final, definitive understanding of yourself.
In my mid-20s, I noticed a pattern: whenever I look back at who I was five years ago, I feel disappointed in the choices I made, embarrassed by what I thought was important. I feel relief that those times are behind me, and a temptation to believe that I’ve finally got it figured out, that I’ve won the game of growing up and it’s smooth sailing from here. But with every half-decade’s leap, I can sense another me five years in the future looking back in disappointment. It’s tough to grapple with this knowledge that you’ll always be a work in progress, but there’s liberation in it, too. It can be such a burden to know that you’re irrefutably right, and that any challenge to your worldview is an act of spite.
Whenever anyone asks why Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite filmmaker, I say that his films only grow richer on repeat viewings, largely because they always leave with some question. I still puzzle over the symbolic value of the car crash that opens Punch-Drunk Love and is never remarked upon. I haven’t managed to fully track the role the harmonium plays in Barry’s emotional journey, though I’m developing a hunch that you could compare it to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that reading might help contextualize some of those weird sound effects. Better watch it again through that lens and see what happens.
It’s so tantalizing to feel like enlightenment is just beyond my reach, that the next viewing will bring me that much closer, and that maybe, if I’m lucky, someday I might catch that missing piece that brings it all together.
Punch-Drunk Love changed for me once again on my most recent viewing. I was struck more than ever by the ending.
I had just enough time to squeeze in that short runtime while my wife and daughter went out to brunch—it turns out my fear of never loving myself enough to be loved, the fear that once made the film unpalatable, was yet another certitude that just needed a little patience and perspective.
We actually settled very close to where Josh grew up—and he settled, along with his wife and son, only a few miles from where I grew up; funny how life rhymes that way sometimes—so I often go back to that drafty seaside arthouse where we underwent that formative trauma. It’s the best place around to see challenging films, so I went back this January to see Phantom Thread, the eighth feature film by Paul Thomas Anderson. His career is twice as long now, and I’m twice as old—making me the age that he was when Punch-Drunk Love was released; another rhyme—so I’m even more tuned in to the way his style has grown in sophistication, how his thematic concerns have deepened. But that prankster energy is still there in the way he subverts period romantic drama with deviant sadism, and that penchant for a strange and incongruous obscenity—it’s impossible not to laugh in disbelief when Reynolds Woodcock shouts that, “no one gives a tinker’s fucking curse,” or when Lancaster Dodd processes his frustration in The Master by cutting off his thought with a sputtering, “PIG FUCK.” There are so few important directors working in important genres so willing to get so weird. His movies may be even more grown-up now, but goodness knows he’s still him.
I’d never before been particularly struck by the final line of Punch-Drunk Love. But this time it took my breath away. As I kept an ear out for my family’s return, I considered Barry sitting at his harmonium—I’ll crack that riddle next time for sure—and then I considered Lena, wrapping her arms around this overgrown adolescent who may finally have a fighting chance at becoming a man. I considered that quiet moment at the crossroads where one story ends, and so many more are about to begin.
“So,” Lena says quietly, “Here we go.” Time for another great leap forward.