Punch-drunk syndrome is an actual condition which boxers and alcoholics suffer from, as dictioniary.com describes it “[it is] caused by repeated cerebral concussions and characterized by weakness in the lower limbs, unsteadiness of gait, slowness of muscular movements, hand tremors, hesitancy of speech, and mental dullness.” It could be suggested that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) suffers something very similar to Punch-drunk syndrome in Punch Drunk Love.
Indeed when we are first introduced to him in his office, he is shoved well and truly in the far corner of the room and is hunched over his desk, this indicates his weakness and lack of masculinity and authority. When he first speaks to Lena (Emily Watson) he hesitates a great deal and leaves long drawn out pauses between his words. Often Barry’s movements are jerky, slow and unpredictable, this is shown by how he quickly scurries when he isn’t being watched but when he is front of people he becomes slower and more reserved.
At the start of the film, Barry is afflicted with punch-drunk syndrome but as the film develops, he becomes cured of this ailment by being conditioned by the element of love. By finding love, Barry’s sense of order is restored and it’s love that helps him finally find his assertiveness.
Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love is the exploration into the effects of love, and how it enters our lives, and how at first it is chaotic, unsettling and demented. However, as the film unfolds and as the relationship develops between Barry and Lena, we see how love wins the character of Barry over and how it completes him. And, we the audience are also won over by the power of love and just like Barry we become quieter, more subdued, and settled. There’s something reassuring by the concept of a greater, unseen force which literally comes out of nowhere but makes a dramatic impact on our lives for the better.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems fascinated on the concept of the battle between chaos and order in our lives, we see this in the form of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2008) who constantly fights Eli for control, and it is the fight for control of our lives which drives the narrative of The Master. The idea of love being a solution to chaos and bringing back balance in an individual’s life, has been seen in Phantom Thread (2017) where Alma manages to find a way to control Woodcock and bring a much needed sense of order when things begin to escalate out of control. Love in Anderson’s film conquers all, especially the element of chaos and mayhem. However, it is Punch Drunk Love where this concept of finding love and restoring balance, is most evident.
Barry often fights for control in his life, by trying to exploit an airlines deal but doesn’t realise it takes 6-8 weeks to receive his air miles, he is mocked by his seven sisters and is blackmailed by a phone sex line. His life is already beginning to spiral out of control at the start of Punch Drunk Love, and this is shown not only by the action that unfolds on the screen but in the effective use of the mise-en-scene. We see that Barry’s world is surrounded by blue, from the colour of the walls at his workplace, to the very suit he wears. Barry particularly blends into the background, he isn’t just suffering from mental dullness but physical dullness, too.
The arrival of Lena brings the colour of red, and vibrancy to Barry’s dull life. And by the end of the film Barry is shown in a different light, quite literally, in his confrontation with Dean Trumble aka The Mattress Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) he is presented with a high-key light which conveys his switch in outlook on life and shift from pessimism to optimism. Barry goes from being hidden in the shadows, hiding from Lena at the start of the film, to becoming shine down upon in the spotlight.
Anderson implies that it is the power of love and order being restored into Barry’s life which places him back into the light. Chaos and the lack of control in Barry’s life prior to the arrival of Lena is shown in the form of two incidents which occur at the start of the film. First is in the form of a car accident, which breaks the uneasy silence that has build up on the screen. The car crash is hardly registered, it just something that occurs due to the randomness of life, and the lack of control that Barry has in the world. Barry is not inadvertently affected by this accident, he is simply a bystander and is so disconnected from the rest of the world that events like these don’t affect him.
By the end of the film, Barry has regained control of his life, and when another car crash occurs this time involving his vehicle with Lena as a passenger, he becomes part of the incident and not simply a bystander. He is the main participant in the event. And because it is Lena who is hurt as a result, Barry can not simply turn and look the other way. He is now motivated and compelled to act as a result of the arrival of love and purpose in his life.
The second representation of gaining control, is in the form of the harmonium which is dumped on the sidewalk. Music is used to great effect in Punch Drunk Love to show Barry losing his sense of control over the events occuring in his life. A great example is the build of tempo when his sister arrives with Lena, and chaos unfolds as the music builds to an almost deafening result.
However, the soothing sound of the harmonium manages to calm Barry when he is in a fit of rage (which seems to be the only way he can truly express himself), and Lena encourages him to learn how to play the instrument. She sees the potential in him where others don’t. As Barry grows closer to Lena, and gains more control over his life, the music becomes less intense and more ordered rather than a flurry of sounds. At the start of the film, the harmonium is placed on Barry’s desk, so he is on the same level on the object and unable to fully master it, this represents how he has no control over his life if we assume that the harmonium represents this. However by the end of the film we see that he is playing the harmonium which is now on the ground and Barry’s towering over him. He hasn’t gotten to this status on his own, as we see Lena wrapping her arms around him and saying “Here we go.” This is the last shot in the film and shows that in order to gain a sense of control in our lives, we need to embrace the concept of love.
Anderson’s message is a simple one, but it’s a reassuring one, love gives us strength. It’s as Barry declares, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”