The Purest Thing in the World

On Knuckle Sandwich, the Paul Thomas Anderson Movie That Wasn’t

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
Revolution Studios

In what passes for consummation in Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 expectation-exploding romantic comedy, Barry and Lena—emotionally stunted novelty plunger salesman and the woman inexplicably but inextricably drawn to him—lie on a hotel bed whispering what passes for sweet nothings between these two ardent misfits: 

“I wanna bite your cheek and chew on it, it’s so fucking cute,” Lena coos, her arms draped across Barry’s back as he looms above her. 

“I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it,” Barry whispers back. “I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty.” 

“I wanna chew your face and I wanna scoop out your eyes.” Lena’s breath quickens with excitement and she squeezes Barry’s shoulders. “I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.”

This passionately sadistic exchange is shocking in both its brevity and its isolation—though Barry struggles with violent urges before this moment and masters them afterwards, in no other case does either character seem to seriously consider violence against someone they love. In the shooting script for Punch-Drunk Love, however, this cryptic exchange is interrupted by a brief monologue in which Barry explains exactly what he means by his unusual definition of pillow talk: 

IIIIIIIIIII don’t want to hurt anything ever, but what I’m talking about is—have you ever held a little puppy or a little kitten and it’s just the cutest, softest, most precious thing in the world and out of the blue you get this feeling in your gut and all you wanna do is squeeze itjust so god damn wonderful and cute you wanna smack it and kick it and love it. Fuck. I don’t know. I don’t know.

With this overt elaboration cut from the finished film, critics and journalists were forced to make sense of the moment for themselves, and many ended up processing it in print as they digested Anderson’s thorny and chaotic romance. The most evident conclusion, as Scott Tobias later wrote for The AV Club, is that this exchange proves Barry and Lena’s relationship is “pure romantic fantasy” between two odd people who “make an odd sort of sense together.” But when Nina Rehfeld called the scene “unnerving” in her 2003 interview with Anderson for German magazine Der Spiegel, the director met her confusion with incredulity. “You don’t know that feeling?”

It’s hard to believe Anderson would be sincerely surprised that viewers were distressed by such violently graphic language, but perhaps he could be forgiven for forgetting Barry’s words were unfamiliar to us. By the time of his conversation with Rehfeld, he’d been living with them for well over a decade.

In the opening sequence of Knuckle Sandwich—an unproduced 140-page screenplay written in 1993 by a 23-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, who prefaced the script with the words, “This movie is to be shot in CINEMASCOPE”—Lena Leonard engineers a chance encounter with Barry Wurlitzer. Three nights later, they have their first kiss, and the night after that they are married. Clearly, there is both significant overlap and significant deviation between the Barry and Lena audiences met in Anderson’s fourth produced feature and the Barry and Lena he conjured in the year following the Sundance premiere of his short film Cigarettes and Coffee.

The main plot of Knuckle Sandwich, a hyper-violent crime thriller set in 1967, picks up six months after Barry and Lena’s wedding, at which point Lena—heretofore seemingly devoted to her husband—walks out on Barry without warning, vanishing into the Los Angeles underworld with a series of conspicuous clues scattered behind her. After Barry, a crook working under the mysterious mob boss Babaloo, botches a job due to blubbering heartbreak, he launches a desperate crusade to obtain the one last kiss Lena once promised would end their relationship should they ever be forced to part. Transformed into what a minor character describes as “a one-man army” by the power of love, Barry leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake as he gradually uncovers the torrid truth of his wife’s long-standing entanglement with Babaloo, finally mounting a daring and quixotic final stand to save the woman he loves “with all [his] heart.”

Long before any of these plot gears begin to spin, however, Barry makes a familiar wedding night confession. “It’s hard to explain,” he tells Lena. “It’s really. It’s hard.” Tensing and clenching his body, Barry spends a page attempting to express himself in halting shards: “I love you so much…your face is so beautifulyou’re just so fuckin’ great that I just want to take you, to take you and – ”

“To hurt me….?” Lena finally offers.

From here, Barry launches into a version of the “I don’t wanna hurt anything” monologue Anderson would later reuse in his Punch-Drunk Love screenplay before cutting it from the finished film. “It’s the strangest and scariest feeling,” Barry concludes. “If I love you, why would I get this urge to smash your face?”

Lena struggles through her version of the same realization: “I know exactly what you mean, I get that feelingwhy is that? What is it?” Barry can’t find a satisfactory answer, and so Lena fills in the ultimate conclusion: “It means you love me. It means I love you.”

As the remainder of Knuckle Sandwich shifts into a chain reaction of car chases, fistfights, and shootouts, it’s not hard to place Anderson’s early effort squarely within the ‘90s indie landscape, an era littered with slick gangster flicks from the straightforward David Mamet works that Anderson openly emulated to the more experimental riffs Quentin Tarantino was formulating around the same time. As Tarantino’s influence rippled across the remainder of the decade, films in the vein of Knuckle Sandwich would become even more common, united by their ironically heightened precision of language and their postmodern flaunting and flouting of noir convention. What sets Knuckle Sandwich apart from these other hyperkinetic riffs on hardboiled tradition is less anything that it is than what it isn’t. Virtually every gangster movie of the ‘90s was aggressively cool; in telling the story of a hopeless romantic driven to monomania by the desire—at least initially—not for revenge or reunion but closure, Knuckle Sandwich is utterly, gleefully uncool.

In his 2007 book Post-Pop Cinema, Jesse Fox Mayshark positioned Anderson as part of a class of storytellers embodying the ethos of one of Anderson’s earliest mentors: David Foster Wallace, who taught Anderson during the latter’s brief enrollment at Emerson College. In his influential 1993 essay “E Unibus, Pluram,” Wallace took aim at what he characterized as the ‘90s culture of “trendy, sardonic exhaustion,” which he saw infecting all art from highbrow literature to lowbrow television. Where irony had once been a rebellious force, a “critical and destructive ground-clearing,” Wallace now saw irony as “singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” And where Mayshark saw so many of the young male auteurs who emerged in the ‘90s as indulging in poker-faced self-reflexivity until their work became “a Venus flytrap, paralyzing and enervating the forms it devours,” in Anderson he saw a better way forward: an artist who indulged in postmodern self-awareness but also “[reached] beyond that basic self-awareness to some kind of transcendent connection,” making “movies [that] strive in their various ways for a sense of how to actually live in the world.”

When he selected influences for his own crack at a self-aware neo-noir, Anderson looked not to the smirking, cerebral cool of Godard—from whom Tarantino took his cues, as well as the name of his production company—but to other midcentury international auteurs who pushed old-fashioned crime tropes towards radical recognizability: Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, from which he learned (as he said in 1998) that a noir hero “could be a little skinnier and not so tough;” Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, in which he saw violence that “isn’t gratuitous, it fucking hurts.” Knuckle Sandwich offers a gangster suffused not with snark or ennui but naked sincerity—a heart so open it fucking hurts—that implicitly interrogates the very appeal of the genre.

Stray Dog (1949) | Criterion
Stray Dog (1949) | Criterion

Looking at the prevalence of gangsters in the independent films of the ‘90s (not to mention before and since) it’s easy to wonder what moves so many young men to pick up a camera and tell stories of smooth criminals with one hand on the trigger and another wrapped around a dame. Is it that these young men long for the freedom to commit their own violent crimes? If so, any number of other archetypes could exercise the same urge. What a classic, debonair gangster offers is the fantasy of control— not so much over others as over the chaotic urges that rule so many young men’s lives. A gangster hero has mastered the seething aggression and lust that tangle in the adolescent male psyche; to paraphrase another Paul Thomas Anderson protagonist, this archetype wrestles the dragon, puts a leash on it, and takes it for a walk.

Knuckle Sandwich presents a gangster with the soul of a certain novelty plunger salesman: a man who hasn’t yet learned to make sense of his conflicting adolescent urges, and finds them commingling and melding into one. If he feels simultaneous compulsions towards love and aggression, then they must be one and the same, and both of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Barrys, en route to finding harmony between their violent and passionate urges, must do battle with a nemesis who’s faced the same crossroads and taken the alternate route. For Barry Egan, this equal opposite is mattress salesman and extortionist Dean Trumbell, another violently furious coward who embraces his rage to avoid confronting his vulnerability. And for Barry Wurlitzer, it’s Babaloo, who can only achieve arousal when brutalizing a victim, a lesson he learned in second grade when his first erection coincided with his vicious beating of the classmate who dared to try and take his lunch. Across two screenplays written a decade apart, four men are stranded in the agonizing overlap between their best and worst impulses, with the heroes succeeding only by finding a way not to vanquish their demons but to tame them and turn them into assets, be it Barry Egan’s balletic pummeling of Trumbell’s goons or Barry Wurlitzer’s superhuman ability to withstand any punishment he might face en route to reunion with Lena.

Paul Thomas Anderson is unquestionably a romantic storyteller, but one for whom the term conjures not so much the 20th century practitioners of swooning comfort food as the 19th century artists and philosophers who saw the human heart as awesome in every sense of the word—sublime and bedazzling and utterly ungovernable. Love in Paul Thomas Anderson films is a force that cannot be reasoned with, one we must scramble to meet with some imperfect understanding before it flattens us. This emotional bewilderment characterizes the romance between Phantom Thread’s Reynolds and Alma, two lovers so headstrong they can reach equilibrium only through mutually agreed-upon abuse; it characterizes the doomed paternal love of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, a man so emotionally illiterate that he seems incapable of understanding, let alone expressing, his attachment to his adopted child and thus damns himself to ultimate abandonment; and it’s there most harrowingly in the ineffectual sobs of Magnolia’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, driven to anguish by his surfeit of love with nowhere to put it. 

“Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” Caspar David Friedrich
“Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1824

Love may be, as Lena repeatedly tells Barry in Knuckle Sandwich, the purest thing in the world, but the purest things are often the hardest to process with our flawed and limited human capacities. And that sort of confusion can lead to the most unexpected revelations, as both Barry and his young creator discover in the back half of Knuckle Sandwich.

Paul Thomas Anderson, as conventional wisdom has long held, makes movies about fathers. Be they biological (Magnolia), adoptive (There Will Be Blood), or surrogate (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, The Master), these “literal and figurative dads” as Noel Murray wrote at The Dissolve in 2015, “frequently represent something larger, like divine guidance, the promise of a better life, or the insistent press of civilization.”

It’s likely that this overanalysis of fathers at the expense of mothers in Anderson’s work has something to do with his own willingness to discuss his relationship with his father and reluctance to discuss his mother. In a 1997 Esquire interview, Anderson spoke at length and with great affection about his father, legendary voice-over announcer Ernie Anderson, but when writer Mim Udovitch attempted to shift topics to his mother, the otherwise loquacious Anderson shut down, saying the only “healthy or okay [way] for me to address” motherhood in Boogie Nights would be to leave personal resonance unspoken. In the ensuing years, the common narrative has emerged that Dirk Diggler’s mother, the manic harridan who tells her son “You can’t do anything! You’ll always be a loser!You’re not going to be shit because you’re too stupid!” is modeled on Anderson’s own perceptions of his relationship with his mother Edwina. But beyond glancing references—in a 1998 interview, Anderson said that if anyone finds the scene outrageously venomous he can only reply, “I’ve sure been there”—the most significant confirmation came in the form of a recollection from Joanna Gleason, the woman tasked with playing the role that some found unrealistically unreasonable. Recalling her audition in a 2014 Grantland oral history, Gleason said, “I asked Paul if this was based on his momhis little eyes were wateringhe didn’t answer, but I said, ‘If it is, you never have to forgive her.’”

In his 2016 book on Anderson, George Toles advances his own theory on “the foreground conflict with father figures” in Anderson’s work: that it’s “an elaborate screen for the far more complicated, perilous, irrational drama with the hidden mother.” Toles points to the opening dilemma of Hard Eight, the inciting incident of the entire Anderson canon—John is distraught over his inability to give his mother a proper burial—but his theory would ultimately bear full fruit in Phantom Thread. For all Anderson’s most recent film may focus on romantic love, the engine driving Reynolds’ story is the “unsettled feeling” that stems from the loss of his mother, one that sends him searching for any surrogate catharsis that might salve a wound he can never fully heal.

One Anderson film, however, is conspicuous for its lack of parental angst: Punch-Drunk Love. Barry may be perpetually overwhelmed by his family in the form of his seven crudely aggressive sisters, but the film is strangely devoid of any reference, either covert or overt, to the elder Egans. In a 2008 paper on “The Limits of Surrogate Paternity” in Anderson’s work, Julian Murphet argues that the lack of parents in Punch-Drunk Love serves as an “intriguing displacement” for these typical Andersonian tensions, shifting the burden of unresolved conflict away from the familiar mother and father archetype and onto more complex obstacles, including Barry’s sisters and the four villainous brothers who do the bidding of the mattress man.

There’s a similar displacement at work in Knuckle Sandwich, but where in Punch-Drunk Love Anderson leaves the significance of his decisions up to the viewer’s interpretation, in the earlier script, he hands Barry a shocking monologue that lays bare the issues that would go on to silently undergird the next two decades of his filmmaking career.

In the process of brutalizing two goons who attempt to block his path to Lena, Barry Wurlitzer offers a stirring declaration familiar (albeit in slightly less elegant form) to any fan of Punch-Drunk Love: “I have love in my heart…..and it’s stronger than anything you can think up.” But rather than concluding “That’s that,” this Barry goes on (and on and on):

[Lena’s] my mother. Do you know that? Do you? A long time ago I knew this lady who called herself my mother…but she wasn’t. It’s what she said. She wasn’t nice. She was mean and cruel and she never, ever loved me. She never held me or pet my head when I was sad. She never smiled at me and she never kissed me…It’s as simple as this: I have a mother now. I have a woman in my life who does the things that the other one never did. Lena’s my mother. She pets my head and she runs her nails on my arm and it gives me the tingles and it makes me go to sleep. She doesn’t make me scared and she doesn’t make me shake.

Taken only on a surface level, this speech could be read as an amusing pseudo-Freudian provocation, one that fits alongside Spanking the Monkey, the 1994 Oedipal bonanza from Anderson contemporary David O. Russell. This sort of mischievous flirtation with taboo was as familiar to the ‘90s indie scene as gangsters, but it tended to be coated in a thick veneer of irony. And—as attested to by no less than the definitional anti-ironist, David Foster Wallace, who saw in Boogie Nights “exactly the story” he had once tried to write himself—Paul Thomas Anderson has rarely put much stock in irony.

Much of the emotional anguish that Anderson’s characters undergo is tied up in just this sort of misplaced, or displaced, confusion between familial love and sexual desire. This theme began with the incest-by-proxy of Hard Eight—Sydney tacitly adopts two lonely young people in a transparent effort to fill the void left by his own estranged children only to see the pair elope and immediately devolve into criminality—before reaching an apotheosis with the sexual relationship between Freddie and his aunt in The Master, referenced glancingly onscreen with the tossed-off “I was drunk and she looked good” but given greater depth in the screenplay, where Freddie elaborates that his aunt had raised him in place of his mentally ill mother.

The murky line between mother and lover is one of the most significant plot strands of Boogie Nights—Dirk trades his biological mother for a surrogate one in porn star Amber Waves, who uses her “new baby” to replace her own estranged son, a situation that would be fraught enough without their professional obligation to regularly fornicate—and returned in the most unexpected of places when Anderson wrote and directed a short film for Saturday Night Live in 2000, part of his effort to learn the rhythms of traditional comedy before he inverted them with Punch-Drunk Love. In the short, an overcranked parody of then-current MTV series FANatic, Ben Affleck portrays Jason, a teenager abandoned by his divorced parents but granted a meeting with Anna Nicole Smith (as embodied by a slurring Molly Shannon), which goes awry when he begs “Miss Anna” to adopt him before immediately sexually accosting her. Mim Udovitch attempted to pry comment on Oedipal dynamics out of the uncharacteristically taciturn Anderson in her Esquire profile, suggesting “the first time [Dirk] fucks [Amber] it’s like an adoption,” with Anderson able only to respond “I definitely think it all proceeds from, um, personal things, things that are on my mind.”

Jason (Ben Affleck) is comforted by Anna Nicole Smith (Molly Shannon) in Anderson’s SNL short FANatic
Jason (Ben Affleck) is comforted by Anna Nicole Smith (Molly Shannon) in Anderson’s SNL short FANatic | NBC

Titillating as some might find it to read into this comment, such Freudian anxiety is relevant less for its illicit prurience than for its elaboration on that overarching concern across Anderson’s filmography: his protagonists, for all their disparate struggles, are united by an alienation from their own needs and desires, at best able to helplessly articulate their dissatisfaction, at worst—as in the case of Freddie Quell—so repressed they can’t even fully open their mouths. Comfort is hard to come by in Paul Thomas Anderson’s conception of the universe, and when it can be found, it’s worth grabbing as quickly and decisively as possible.

Knuckle Sandwich is a rough object likely of interest only to the Anderson diehards—“There’s a real delicacy to his work in Boogie Nights and Magnolia that isn’t present here,” Drew McWeeny wrote after getting a look at the script in 2000. “This is a fascinating glimpse into the artist PTA once was, but for now, that’s all it is.” But if it stands apart from the Anderson canon in its frequent indulgence in cliché (could any 23-year-old hope to write a revisionist crime thriller that entirely evaded that pitfall?), it also stands apart as the only Paul Thomas Anderson story to trace the path of two characters wholly and idealistically devoted to one another. From the moment of their page-one meet-cute, Barry and Lena are aligned in their love, a connection that girds them against all the hyperbolic brutality of the outside world. When these two demented romantics each independently mount a doomed final stand—Lena to escape Babaloo’s stronghold, Barry to penetrate it—their hopeless missions unite in a harmonious bloodbath resonant with Australian media theorist Glen Fuller’s assessment that Punch-Drunk Love demonstrates “love is not a fusional concept, the ‘two’ that is ‘one’” but rather a “wondrous violence” as two individuals collide eternally and happily in defiance of all reason and good sense.

For as much text and subtext as he might have imported for Punch-Drunk Love, there’s another striking moment of familiarity in Knuckle Sandwich. On the night of their meet-cute, Barry makes a proposal to Lena:

From now, from this moment: Be as open and pure and simple as possible—with each other—you and me. I wanna try and tell you everything and you should do the same, and if we do it, if we just let go of all the crap and piss and shit that kills other people, if we can get to the truth, just think…think about how great it could be.

By the time a version of these words were spoken in Magnolia, they would be uttered by a weeping woman trying to cleanse herself of decades of trauma, but no matter the speaker, the essential message is the same: the purest path to salvation is to be as open and direct as possible. It’s a strategy Anderson the writer shifted away from beginning with Punch-Drunk Love, which signaled a turn towards increasingly oblique and opaque screenwriting. He was right to realize how much more powerful the ideas in Knuckle Sandwich could be if the explicit was pruned away to leave their significance visible only as negative space (not to mention the realization that audiences would benefit less from the umpteenth story of a gangster battling a mob boss than from the first story of a novelty plunger salesman battling a mattress salesman). But in all its raw directness, Paul Thomas Anderson’s unmade first opus leaves us with two lessons: say what you mean, and believe in the power of love.

These were the guiding stars that set him on the course that would elevate him beyond the teeming pack of ‘90s cool kids. Cool can be lost, or rescinded, or outgrown. Uncool—maybe not the purest thing in the world but certainly up there—is forever.