Few films manage to portray the particular satisfaction that comes with unbridled anger like Punch-Drunk Love. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film is notable for many reasons, including its Best Director win at Cannes, and the lead performance by Adam Sandler. In one of the actor’s first major efforts at a dramatic role, Sandler plays Barry, a businessman with a temper that runs so deep it could only be called pathological. Over the course of the film, Barry falls in love with a woman named Lena (Emily Watson), becomes embroiled in a phone sex hotline extortion scam, and learns to stand up for himself in the face of his seven incredibly abrasive sisters.
It’s often said that love and rage operate in similar parts of the brain. Both emotions can lead to irrationality or unhinged decision-making, but they can also create a kind of liberty. In Punch-Drunk Love, the two operate not as polar opposites but as complementary themes. Anderson treads the thin boundary between the two feelings to show the power of each. Barry learns to embrace some aspects of his anger that allow him to love Lena more fully. This duality is ever-present in Anderson’s stylistic sense as well, most notably in the careful consideration of color in the film, along with the attention paid to elevating classic filmmaking techniques, such as the shot/reverse-shot. These thematic and stylistic underpinnings work seamlessly in the key moment of the film: the date scene.
After a tense interaction at the hands of Barry’s sister, Elizabeth, Lena asks Barry out to dinner. The scene begins in the middle of a conversation with the two seated on opposite sides of a booth, with Barry in close-up. Lena confesses that she intentionally tried to meet Barry because she had seen a photo of him, in reference to an earlier scene where she entrusts Barry with her car keys. Barry isn’t sure whether to believe her or not, but her honesty seems to allow him to open up a little bit more.
The conversation continues, and Barry begins explaining a plan he’s concocted to take advantage of a promotional offer for frequent flyer miles. Lena connects this relatively strange plan to a story Elizabeth told her about Barry, when he got so angry as a boy that he threw a hammer through a sliding glass door. This makes Barry visibly very uncomfortable, and he excuses himself to smash up the bathroom, expelling the anger and embarrassment caused by Lena’s knowledge of this event.
What makes this date scene so unique and wonderful is the way this hiccup is treated by the film and filmmaker. A date scene in which something goes wrong is certainly not uncommon in film, but often a snafu would be cause for the relationship to break up, or be played for comedy. This date goes poorly by most metrics, Lena angers Barry, Barry destroys a bathroom (and cuts his hand), and they get kicked out of the restaurant. None of this is exploited for crass comedy, however, and it’s certainly not the end of their relationship. Instead, the scene acts as an acknowledgment about the complexities of romantic attraction and entanglement, and it sets up the nuanced thematic goals of the film.
This scene is crucial in part because it helps to establish the intimacy between the characters. Although Barry doesn’t tell Lena he destroyed the bathroom, it’s clear that she’s aware that something wild happened. Like the hammer story, this doesn’t perturb her but endears her to Barry even more. Anderson seems fascinated with the oddities that connect people, which is present in so many of his more recent films, including Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. Indeed, after Barry is kicked out of the restaurant, Lena holds out her arm, as if hoping Barry will take her hand. His rage is honest and vulnerable, and she is attracted to these qualities. He need not hide his anger from Lena. Their bond is immediately established along the lines of love and rage, so their relationship can exist on a much more authentic and open level.
Throughout the film, Anderson keeps a careful eye on the colors of each frame, particularly through the use of costumes. In the date scene, Barry is wearing the blue suit that he dons for much of the film, and Lena is wearing a bright red dress, a similar color to her outfit she wears the first time we meet her. This is particularly striking when Anderson cuts to a wider shot when we see them across the table from each other. The choice of colors is complex, as often in film blue is coded as sad or calm, while red is considered to be angry or lustful. Choosing slightly unexpected colors for each character underscores the nature of their relationship and ensures the viewer understands that these feelings exist in each of us; it’s not a matter of coding a character simply as “sad” or “angry.” Leaving room for each love and rage is crucial to a realistic romantic connection and is why this date scene is so memorable.
Anderson ensures the intimacy comes across at a photographic level as well. Much of the scene is shot in a classic shot/reverse-shot paradigm, with a slight intervention. Shot/reverse-shot occurs when two characters are looking at each other and facing opposite directions, so it appears there’s a camera positioned over each character’s shoulder. The director can cut between the shots to show reactions or dialogue. In the date scene, the shot/reverse-shot is a bit more centered, so about a third of the frame is covered by the back of the character’s head. This gives the impression that the two appear much closer than they actually are. It also reveals the position of the camera much more obviously than in classic shot/reverse-shot, which gives the audience the impression that they’re actually peering over the characters’ shoulders. Allowing the audience such an inside perspective on the date allows Anderson’s thematic and cathartic aims to be realized. The closeness experienced by the viewer here is part of how they connect so deeply with Barry and become invested in his anger.
Perhaps even more important than the intimacy between the characters is the audience’s intimacy with Barry. The two previous scenes in the film when Barry loses his cool are photographed with his back to the camera or cut so that we cannot see his face. This is the first time we as an audience are privy to Barry’s expression and depth of feeling during an outburst. Sandler does an incredible job here: as Lena begins to relay the hammer story, his face falls and contorts to show just how much effort it takes for him to mitigate his anger. When the camera cuts to the bathroom and we watch Barry destroy the stalls in a single take, the complex expression on his face suggests he’s as angry at himself as he is at his sister.
The intimacy established with the audience here allows another element of Anderson’s film to be unlocked, which is the wish-fulfillment of watching Barry go ape-shit. Most of us learn to force down anger, to breathe through the rage until it resembles compliant annoyance. There’s not often an opportunity (or a good enough reason) to break and destroy, to unleash your anger onto some unsuspecting bathroom door. Watching Barry succumb to this instinct lets us feel the same delicious lick of satisfaction that he does. It’s cathartic in its barest sense, and it’s part of why we go to the movies: to give in to these instincts and obtain pleasure from imagining ourselves in Barry’s place. What other botched date scene includes such a therapeutic expression of anger?
Watching this movie when you’re angry is like a bloodletting. Giving the audience a space to release some pent-up energy is the sign of an emotionally intelligent director. Anderson masterfully made a film about anger that’s also one of the most charming and deeply-felt love stories of the 21st century. Punch-Drunk Love seems to understand that relationships cannot be built on positivity alone. In fact, the freedom that comes with flying off the handle can be productive, even attractive, and Anderson’s scene seems like the only one of its kind to realize that. The date scene beautifully reveals these themes, as well as the subtle aesthetics of the movie. It also exposes and delights in our own basic need to lose our shit.