Badass Drama: Punch-Drunk Love

INSIDE THE MIND OF BARRY EGAN
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson
2002

CONTEXT

Barry Egan is special. He has seven pushy sisters, a business that sells novelty plungers, a table filled with pudding to take advantage of a marketing gimmick, a harmonium, and a phone-sex operator trying to steal his money. Although his psychological quirks are never defined in the movie, many viewers suggest he has Asperger syndrome.

In this scene, one of Barry’s sisters attempts to introduce him to her friend Lena.

WHY IT’S BADASS

The drama in Punch-Drunk Love stems almost completely from Barry Egan’s awkward mindset; if he was a normal guy, there wouldn’t be a movie.

Barry’s disorder is imperative to the story, but it’s never explained in the dialogue or plot. So how do we know he’s crazy? And how does his mindset create drama in such a simple movie premise?

Although Paul Thomas Anderson is a brilliant writer, he is first and foremost a director. This means that he creates drama with filmmaking techniques more than plot. We aren’t told that Barry’s crazy, we experience it through the camera, lighting, soundtrack, design, and performances.

The most obvious device that puts us in Barry’s head is Jon Brion’s percussive, syncopated soundtrack (to call it “music” would be a stretch). It’s a jumbled mess of sounds and notes that rarely match the action in the scene, broken only by an occasional melody from the harmonium. What better way to show how a series of simple problems can become a nightmare in the mind of Barry Egan?

But there’s more to this scene than an awkward soundtrack.

Notice how Barry’s suit blends in with the stripe on the wall. Listen for the constant repetition of dialogue (“What’s that pudding, Barry?”). Watch for a disorienting mix of zooms, dollies, and swipes that keep us on the edge of our seats, and exploding anamorphic flairs that indicate Barry’s aversion to bright light.

In any other movie, it would be a sin to put the actor’s face in shadows, but there are several instances where Barry’s face falls into silhouette. Look at the way his sister walks; is she a Muppet? This odd performance choice adds to the chaotic rhythm of the scene. And during the first dialogue scene with Lena, the camera “crosses the line” making the couple appear disconnected while subtly confusing the viewers sense of space.

Even when Barry is alone in his office, he’s surrounded by moving shadows. No matter where he goes, he can’t escape the chaos!

HOWEVER.

There’s a beautiful moment of decision as Lena stands beside her car and considers going back inside. When she finally meets Barry away from his sister and his work, the music dies down, the camera settles, the shadows and flairs disappear… and thanks to brilliant filmmaking techniques, we know that Barry needs Lena in his life.

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