Scene by Scene: Paul Thomas Anderson

Scene by Scene explores an auteur’s finest moments — the scenes that let you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. This week, in honor of his latest film, Phantom Thread, Sam will reflect on the magic moments of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. 

Anderson is one of the most versatile filmmakers working today. He’s a chameleon, always reinventing himself and never covering the same ground twice. He has introduced us to a wide range of eccentric characters, from a gambler to a porn star, a lovesick loner to a ruthless oilman. You can’t watch one of his films and say, “That’s so ‘Paul Thomas Anderson.’ ” That’s why this entry is particularly challenging. How do you choose signature scenes from a director who doesn’t have a distinct, recognizable signature? 

Here are five of the many mesmerizing scenes that remind us why we love this ever-changing filmmaker. 

 

5. THE MASTER: HEATED DEBATE

Haunting and hypnotic, The Master feels kindred with Boogie Nights in the sense that it also follows a drifting man (Joaquin Phoenix) as he’s seduced into a world of seemingly controlled chaos. In this scene, the titular leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a Scientology-like sect is called into question by one of its many skeptics.

Looking back on it now, this scene seems to foreshadow the kind of debate we now see online every day — the sort of argument that starts with simple questions and quickly escalates into animalistic rage. Hoffman commands the screen with the same ferocity as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. The camera rests on his reddening face, making us squirm as his anger unfolds. Intimate, awkward, unsettling. It’s everything we want from Anderson when he weaves his dark magic and makes us stare into the abyss. Like the alluring cult at its center, The Master casts a spell on you. It’s a fever dream of a film.

 

4. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE: “THAT’S THAT”

When we first meet Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), he’s somber, shy and buried under low self-esteem. By the end of the film, he transforms into a fiercely passionate person. In this scene, he faces the kind of man who used to intimidate him and proudly proclaims: “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” This quietly heroic moment will give you goosebumps. It’s the kind of scene you’d see in one of Sandler’s romantic comedies, but Anderson elevates it to the level of high art.

Punch-Drunk Love was my introduction to Anderson and it remains my favorite of his films. It came along at just the right time in my life. I was in junior-high and, like Sandler’s character, awkward, lonely, always on the verge of anger and despair. Whenever I was down, I’d pop in the DVD; watching this film made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Now I have a love in my life, and to quote Sandler’s Barry again, “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea.” It’s refreshing to revisit a film at your highest peak after watching it so many times in your lowest valleys. Like any of my favorite films, Punch-Drunk Love takes me back to a specific place in time and reminds me how far I’ve come since then.

 

3. BOOGIE NIGHTS: NEW YEAR’S KISS

With his stunning sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, Anderson demystifies the porn industry and opens our eyes to the emotions of the flesh-and-blood people it presents as mere objects. This uncomfortable and unforgettable scene stands out as a moment of raw, painful intimacy in a world of romanticized reality. It’s also a devastating instance of rejection in the midst of people who say yes to everything life throws at them.

Boogie Nights is heartfelt, hilarious and fun, but it’s ultimately tragic. This scene embodies the deep ache at the core of the film. It reveals the pain that all of its characters are desperately trying to numb with pleasure.

 

2. THERE WILL BE BLOOD: MILKSHAKES AND MAYHEM

After the 1990s, Anderson seemed to drift from ensemble dramas toward character studies focused on a single enigmatic figure. Punch-Drunk Love gently began that shift with a fragile, tragicomic character. Five years later, There Will Be Blood plunged full-force into a much darker mind, revolving around a powerful man who represents our ugly, hungry id.

At once achingly real and larger than life, oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of Anderson’s most compelling characters. He’s a towering, monstrous figure with a deep-seated sense of sadness that makes his abrasive actions all the more troubling. The end of the film finds him living miserably in a cold, empty mansion — void of the joy he thought money and power would bring. It’s a purgatory for Plainview, and in the final scene, he lashes out like a wild animal in a cage.

His climactic confrontation with religious zealot Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film. It’s tense yet darkly funny, quiet yet sweeping. It feels like the grand finale of a Shakespearean tragedy yet it takes place in the intimate space of a basement bowling alley. This is a beautifully brutal ending to a beast of a film. A grim epic about the dark side of the American dream, There Will Be Blood smacks of Citizen Kane. It’s a modern classic.

 

1. MAGNOLIA: AIMEE MANN SING-ALONG

Magnolia is about cutting through facades. It reveals the vulnerability of a police officer (John C. Reilly), the fragile ego of a sleazy guru (Tom Cruise), the seedy underbelly of a game show host (Philip Baker Hall) and more. This sequence captures the characters at their lowest points and allows them a moment of catharsis. Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” swells on the soundtrack, and each member of the ensemble sings along, releasing their pain and reminding us of the therapeutic power of art. It’s a prime example of Anderson creatively giving a voice to society’s black sheep.

If Anderson’s films share a common thread, it’s that they all shed light on deeply flawed characters. It’s invigorating to see a filmmaker take the time to explore the complexities of human behavior in an age wherein viewers quickly dismiss films if their central characters are less than saints. Some critics are railing against Phantom Thread because it paints an empathetic portrait of an often emotionally abusive artist. These critics are missing the point. Trying to understand harsh behavior isn’t the same as glorifying it. We go to the movies to learn about different kinds of people and to ultimately see a reflection of ourselves, even if it shows our warts.

As Roger Ebert said: “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Anderson’s films are journeys into the heart of darkness, but in the end, they radiate with the light of pure humanity.



Sam Watermeier has been a film critic since practically before he was born, as he almost popped out of his mother's womb in a movie theater during the drawn-out conclusion of The Godfather Part III. Sam started professionally in 2009 at NUVO Newsweekly, not only contributing movie reviews but also profiles of local filmmakers and previews of Indy film festivals. He also writes reviews and commentaries for the Indy-based website The Film Yap. In 2015, Sam was inducted into the Indiana Film Journalists Association.


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