Punch-Drunk Love may be the most divisive film I’ve shown in class. About 1/3 of my students HATED it, 1/3 seemed to love it, and the other 1/3 just seemed baffled by it. And it was often the same elements that led each group to its judgment. Certainly, it has an abrasive style: Jon Brion’s manic score, the over-exposed lighting, and Barry Egan’s visible anxiety all coalesce into a roller-coaster viewing experience. I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to inhabit that world, if only for 90 minutes, but for me, it’s a thrilling experience.
I want to focus specifically on my favorite sequences in the film: Barry’s sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) brings Lena (Emily Watson) to meet Barry and see if he’d like to get breakfast. This sequence is perfection. It’s crucial to note that Jon Brion’s frantic “Tabla” theme is playing throughout, which amps up the intensity of what’s happening:
It begins with Barry stepping outside while drinking his coffee. Variations of this shot are repeated throughout the film. The outside world is always overexposed and bright. For Barry, terrifying things happen outside of his cool, blue shop, so Anderson makes sure it always appears alien. Sure enough, as he looks down the drive, he sees Elizabeth and Lena approaching. He frantically backs up (a recurring tendency), turns, and starts sprinting towards his office.
Here, we get a play on the horizontal tracking shot Anderson has been using throughout the film. Usually, the camera is set-up on the opposite side of this table, but here we’re looking into the warehouse as Barry trips over an unknown object. This shot serves a few purposes. First, we get a slapsticky fall, as a funny Adam Sandler film should have. Second, we establish Lance’s location. Finally, we establish the forklift that will play a role later. This shot is particularly great for the way Barry pops right back up and continues into his office while telling Lance to keep the floor clear.
I love this shot. This is the position Barry puts himself in to receive his sister and Lena. A recurring theme of the film is that Barry takes his job very seriously (hence dressing up in his suit) and he is desperate that people view him professionally. Obviously, this is how a boss hangs out in his office.
As Lena and Elizabeth enter, we get another variation on the tracking shot. The camera picks them up as they walk in, wraps back behind the table, and tracks back as they walk towards the camera. About halfway down the Funger line, the camera rotates 180 degrees and picks up Barry as he approaches the two women. In one swoop, the camera has become Lena and Elizabeth. We cut and see the three in profile.
During this initial exchange, Elizabeth is bombarding Barry with questions about his piano, the pudding, and breakfast. Her assaultive dialogue mixed with Brion’s score is nerve-scraping. It’s crucial, though, that Lena is quiet a reserved, and when she talks, it’s almost in a whisper.
As they are talking, Barry gets a phone call, and the camera squares up on Barry between the girls’ shoulders. As Barry walks back to answer the phone, the camera slowly tracks in on him. It’s the phone-sex girl from the night before and Barry is understandably confused on how she got his number.
As Barry looks back at the women, Lena suggests that they come back later, as Barry is clearly busy, and the two walk outside so Lena can go pay for her car (that’s in the repair shop next door). As Lena leaves the frame, Elizabeth angrily turns around and storms back into the office. I love the intensity of Mary Lynn Rajskub as she walks. She deserved an Oscar for this 10 seconds.
I love the interaction between Barry and his sister’s in this film. They are an insane family, and it’s clear that as the only boy, Barry suffered. And although they are mean to him, it’s also clear that they love him. They are worried about him. And in the case of Elizabeth, her instincts were right about Lena. They do make an amazing couple. But Anderson does an amazing job of displaying the power-dynamics of their relationship through the basic staging of these scenes. As Elizabeth gets into Barry’s office, where he’s still on the phone with Georgia the phone-sex operator, she gets as close to him as she possibly can. Instictively, Barry tries to get away from her, but there’s just not enough room to escape.
It’s actually a really complicated scene to shoot because they are in an incredibly tight space. They are also dealing with the telephone cord which Barry has to navigate around the harmonium perched on his desk. And the whole time, Elizabeth is just trying to make eye-contact with Barry who is avoiding it like death. Finally, she traps him in this corner where she asks him why he needs to see a therapist: “What’s the matter with you? Are you ok?” She’s genuinely scared for him. Naturally, Barry deflects the questions and is only saved by the returning Lena, who suggests they better head out.
Elizabeth gives her a “Yep..no..” and leaves to get something from her car.
Finally, we think we are going to get a one-on-one sequence with Lena and Barry, but just as Elizabeth leaves, Lance walks in to clarify something Barry mentioned earlier about a guy in Toledo.
This simple shot is a perfect example for how PTA is able to get across character information in a purely visual way. First, Barry is sitting down in his chair because that’s what bosses do. Like standing with the harmonium, he’s trying to show Lena that he’s in charge. But by shooting over Lance, who is standing, Anderson robs Barry of that power. The power dynamic is off here. We get a reverse-shot emphasizing this:
Barry can’t clarify about the man in Toledo, because there isn’t a man in Toledo. He made it up to seem important. Crucially, Lena is staring over Lance’s shoulder to see how Barry operates, which only amplifies his insecurity.
This is a crucial tactic in Anderson’s approach to the romantic-comedy. He actively works to delay the expectations we have of the genre. Although he hits all the necessary plot moves, they always happen after they are supposed to. We just want to see these two talk already! And finally, Lance leaves, but we don’t get the sort of payoff we want because Anderson distracts from the two in the sound mixing. Just as Lena begins to apologize for missing the party the night before, the forklift overwhelms the soundtrack and its movement distracts us visually
Just as they finally start to talk, they get interrupted again with a worker telling Barry he has another phonecall.
I love how Lena is starting to get a little overwhelmed here. Throughout the film, she is the picture of calm, but the way she scrunches away from this guy indicates that even she would be affected by this setting. This is a crucial little moment because the key between her and Barry is that she truly understands and appreciates his experience. She sees how the world affects him and admires the way he is able to deal with it, whereas his sisters think he’s weird.
As Barry answers and quickly hangs up the phone, Lena takes the opportunity to actually sit down. Again, given the way Anderson has established the power dynamics with Barry sitting and his workers standing, it’s a key gesture that Lena wants to get on his level. But she does so tentatively, carefully reading his body language to make sure she isn’t overstepping. The whole film has been building this way incrementally. When Lena and Barry first meet, they are actually outside the building. When they meet again, they are about half-way into the building. And then she’s at the door. And now she’s in the chair.
But of course, we aren’t getting a break. That forklift from earlier zips across the background and slams into the wall of pallets to Barry’s right. Lena jumps up to look at the crash, but Barry jumps up to maintain eye-level with Lena. He’s so focused in on her that he is oblivious to the chaos in his shop.
Elizabeth returns, but still, Barry is only focused on Lena, even after another catastrophe involving the forklift in the background.
Even Lena has given up by this point, and she sort of stumbles out of the office and Elizabeth follows. The world has overwhelmed her, in much the same way as this sequence of the film overwhelms the audience. All Barry can do is watch with regret as she leaves, the harmonium providing his only relief.
But there’s a twist here. Again, so much of this sequence works on repetition: the phone ringing, the tracking shot from the front of the office to the back, the score, Elizabeth’s circular questioning. So we get the same shot that originally sent Lena next door, only now they are leaving for good. But the camera does something unique. It follows Lena all the way to her car where she hesitates before turning around and returning to the warehouse.
We get another variation on the tracking shot here. Instead of following her from the inside, we track along the outer wall, only catching up to her at the other garage door. Here, the camera moves into the warehouse and frames everyone perfectly as Lena finally asks Barry out. It’s a great shot. I love Barry’s just watching this date proposal unfold. Usually, this would mortify Barry (he’s already told his sister he didn’t want her to bring Lena to the party because everyone would be looking at him), but here he’s just happy. He’s so focused in that he doesn’t even register how incredibly awkward this is.
Finally, the two move to a workbench so she can write down her number and address. As she’s writing, Barry, unprovoked, finally answers all the questions that his sister had asked in the previous 8 minutes. It’s a great little monologue that Lena doesn’t seem to even notice. It’s crucial that the score has slowly faded away now. Finally, it’s just two people talking. As Lena walks off, the phone rings again. It’s Georgia again promising Barry a “war” and we transition to Provo, site of D&D Mattress Man.
For me, this is just a bravado sequence. The core conflicts and stakes of the film are established in just 8:09 of screen time. The use of repetition and variations help establish both the rhythm and the tone of the film, but also provide a satisfying arc to this particular sequence. It almost works as a short film in and of itself. Punch-Drunk Love builds a set of expectations that are really firmly established in this sequence. In particular, the phone ringing and its implications will pay off in a variety of ways. But also, through the mise en scène, Anderson is able to visually establish character relations and power hierarchies that are going to be played with throughout the second half of the film.