PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is a wonderful movie. I see it as a meditation on the reality and formative power of things like the will. The will is a real thing no less than a body. It has a certain constitution, and it can be made healthy or unhealthy.
That’s what I love about Punch Drunk Love. In part the movie is about this guy who’s been caged by his family’s constant characterizations of his behavior. The family constantly keeps him off-balance with demands for explanations of behavior they judge bizarre without ever attempting to understand. And he does seem sort of feeble and ineffective and afraid and at the same time he has these intensely destructive explosions of rage.
But the movie doesn’t assert that this character is caged from the get-go. First it just shows you this guy alone and he appears strange and you don’t know what to make of him. The medium of film allows us to watch his behavior for a long time before anybody has to put anything into words. In this way the film is able to create a real mystery around this guy’s identity and we are enabled to consider his behavior in relation to what we hear said of it. And we can watch the changes in his behavior in different settings, in the company of different people.
Two things happen in the movie. First, the character calls a phone sex line and becomes entangled with con artists who try to extort money from him. Significantly they try to prevent him from retaliating against their manipulations by judging him, by shaming him, “You’re a pervert, you deserve it.” Second, he meets someone and they fall in love. The two storylines become involved in one another and so the movie goes.
But the significant thing about the movie for me is that it offers two portraits of this strange guy. When he cancels his credit card to prevent the con artist from stealing all his money, four thugs are sent to force him to pay. When all he has is a family that continually shames and humiliates him, he is in this encounter with the thugs a person who flees. It’s an amazing scene, he bolts and runs and runs with this tremendous panicked whine coming out of him the whole time. He’s completely out of control. That’s who he is in that moment.
But then the second portrait comes after he’s fallen in love. The thugs return and this time they endanger his Beloved and threaten that relationship. This time he stands his ground and dispatches all four of them with impressive ease. That’s who he is in that moment.
What’s changed is his relation to his will. Before he fell in love, frustrated and ensnared by people who supposed to love him, the power in him could only explode in fits of “senseless” rage. After he falls in love, as he tells the con artist when he finally faces him down, “I have a love in my life, it gives me power like you wouldn’t believe.” In this new relationship he is a changed man, he is no longer what being on the outside of a family, taking any abuse, waiting to be invited in made out of him. He is not now waiting for some good that someone else has the power to proffer. He is in possession of a good, of a thing he values and it gives him the power of integrity, it gives him an untempered simplicity which knows no hesitation.
That is a marvelous presentation of the importance of assessment of things like the will. We think we can control things through our characterizations, but if the things we would characterize are substantial, if they are real, and if our characterizations don’t fit, we pervert reality or block our access to its simple functionality. Such distortions affect our will or our ability to love, or all manner of other things.
The film emphasizes the ambiguity in just seeing and hearing things, and ultimately in just feeling and thinking things as well. It cultivates this ambiguity by taking this guy out of the range of characterizations, by calling characterization itself into question. It makes us watch things without our usual characterizations insulating us. As the character faces the hopes and anxieties of the first meeting of someone who might embrace him in spite of all he fears he is, who might want him as he is, we are with him in a world open to all of its own essential energies. We are standing with him without the higher ordering thoughts to flatten the experience into names. We are, as he is, involved, taken up, participating. The world once again seems a place of possibilities.
The film is at its funniest when the experience of love is characterized in its first completely disorganized sensations. The new couple has rendezvoused in Hawaii – a wild thing for either of these two people to have done – and they are kissing. He stops and says, “I’m sorry I forgot to shave.”
To which she replies: “Your face is so adorable … and your skin and your cheek… I want to bite it… I want to bite your cheek and chew on it, it’s so  cute.”
He nods and then says, “I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty.”
She: “I want to chew on your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes … and I want to eat them. Chew them and suck on them.”
He nods again and says: “Okay. This is funny.”
“This is nice.” They kiss again.