Selected filmography: Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007)
With 2002’s weird romance Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson ascended beyond the ecstatic Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman imitations of his early career to become the most unpredictable writer/director working in American movies. There Will Be Blood, his 2007 epic about oil and religion, only confirmed his talents.
Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood are about the possibility of change for men who don’t want to be the way they are. In Punch-Drunk Love, that man is Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan, a socially awkward entrepreneur prone to sudden outbursts of violence who doesn’t want to be alone. He’s not so different from Sandler’s usual characters, except the world isn’t a cartoonish stage for his tantrums. This allows for embarrassment, in the viewer and in Barry.
On a date with the equally alone Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), Barry destroys a bathroom and the desperation in his voice as he quietly pleads with the maître d’ to keep from getting kicked out gnaws at the viewer’s guts in unfamiliar ways; nothing in Sandler’s career has prepared you for this. Anderson creates a feeling of total assault by manipulating the sound design, in this scene and across the film. When Barry savages the bathrooms stalls, the sounds are distorted, muffled, like you’re being held underwater by his rage and shame. Just moments later, after the pathetic and heartbreaking pleading, Jon Brion’s carnival score bubbles up to create a fantastical environment further embellished by the clothing of Barry and Lena—she’s always in red, and he’s always in blue, like some kind of fairy tale costuming. And when they appear together, flashes of white illuminate the scenery. It’s a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman. But only a nod. By the 2000s, Anderson was confident enough that he no longer imitated wholly the early masters.
Punch-Drunk Love is the great 21st century romantic comedy. It agitates and unnerves with peculiar sound mixing, an unmistakable mise en scene, and facts about the strangeness of modern life—the complex frequent flyer miles scheme involving pudding that figures prominently in the story is true—even as it allows you to believe in the transformative power of love.
There Will Be Blood speaks to contemporary politics—the Christian right and the quest for oil—by exploring the grand myths of America. The extreme formal decisions of Punch-Drunk Love are pushed even further here. In the first 15 minutes not a word is spoken as the camera tracks Daniel Plainview’s rise from silver prospector to oil man. (One thing that unites many of the directors discussed here is a willingness to tell stories without dialogue, a movement toward pure cinema.) Fully inhabited by Daniel Day-Lewis, Plainview is the rhetoric of bootstrap determination personified. He literally drags himself up a mineshaft, his leg broken, and then pulls his broken body across the desert to the place where he will receive payment for his silver.
Plainview doesn’t want to be a misanthropic monster. He wants to be a father to his adopted son, H.W. He longs to connect with some kind of family. But his fatalistic belief in his own narrative, his own mythology—on more than one occasion he talks about what’s in him, as if he were a plot of land to be drained—destroys him.
It’s a classic American story filtered through the lens of Paul Thomas Anderson, who uses a bracing score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and bizarre moments of pitch-black comedy to create a singular experience. Nested allusions to everything from Stanley Kubrick to the Bible make There Will Be Blood a slippery text that gets stranger with each viewing. Each rhyming image, like the oil on H.W.’s shoe when they first arrive in Little Boston and the blood staining Daniel’s in the final scene, each unnervingly symmetrical shot, deepens the mystery.
As Anderson’s most recent film, The Master, has been his strangest (and best) yet, we can only anticipate more greatness from a filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers. —Ross Scarano