Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the small-town of Paterson, New Jersey. He was born and raised there, but he just as easily could have chosen it on his own, as if drawn there. In some ways it feels like Paterson couldn’t or simply doesn’t exist outside outside of this town. Others observe the oddity of him sharing a name with the city, though he doesn’t because it’s not peculiar to him. It’s as if Paterson and Paterson are one.
Everything in Paterson feels united because it’s all seen through Adam Driver’s eyes (from hear on out I will refer to him as Adam Driver to avoid confusion). He’s a poet, somewhere between amateur and professional but only because he refuses to sell his poems. Driver enjoys the simplicity of watching people act out the roles they don’t realize they’re acting out. He watches them with kindness and a type of detachment that only comes from pure zen. There is no sense of desire, fear, envy or anything else in Driver’s gaze. He respects and loves it all, and since everything in the film and the city share this love, it feels connected.
That’s why Driver keeps seeing patterns which suggest there is something meaningful and more powerful going on, even if he never investigates it and we never see it. It’s just… there, and Driver is willing to enjoy the reach of this power and unity without tracing its roots.
Because of all this, the film has very little in the way of plot. It’s broken up by days of the week, and this structural device allows us to see just how constant and ordinary Paterson’s life is. Paterson, I mean Adam Driver, gets up everyday in a similar embrace with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) before heading to work, driving the same bus line everyday, going to the same bar for the same one glass of beer, walking the same dog the same route and coming home to go to bed and do it all over again.
There are two instances in his day in which there is room for variability, but Driver’s role in these instances do not change. On the bus he glimpses different riders talking about whatever it is they want to talk about, though he never intervenes. Instead he just listens. Similarly, at the bar every night he watches a kind of live action play unfold in front, beside or behind him. Doc the bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley) plays himself in chess every night but then one night his wife angrily confronts him about something we know nothing about. Our perspective of the incident, like Paterson’s, is one of cluelessness. This glides into his life for a moment, Driver’s not Doc’s, and it will leave just as quickly.
Driver has a way of viewing everything as beautiful precisely because it’s (probably) impermanent. This means the blessings and the curses are given equal time and weight. Also in the bar, Driver and Doc watch a relationship dissolve in front of their eyes, and as the man mourns his fate, Driver stifles a laugh. There is a sense of humor about everything going on in Paterson and in life.
Through this week in his life, we see how precisely routine his day is and through that we realize how important this quiet consistency is to him. Driver doesn’t want to publish his poems, even when Laura insists he does, because it’s not about fame or wealth. Even if his poems were to sell well, it’s a threat because it means his current life would change, and that’s the last thing he wants… it seems, though I have a feeling Paterson would roll with those punches too.
At one point, after a night out with Laura, Paterson returns home to see that his dog (whom he doesn’t particularly like) has shredded his notebook, destroying all his poems. Laura is the one who is truly upset while Paterson just sits around quietly, either okay or about to snap. After some brief soul-searching and a run in with an altar ego or sorts, Paterson returns to writing poems, and there was little doubt he would do anything else.
Losing something so meaningful to him is just a part of the process. Paterson’s life, though so constant, is built to withstand any kind of change, whether birth or death. Throughout the film we’re given reasons to anticipate a breakdown in his relationship because, other than his poems (which seem more like meditation than work), it’s the only thing that has any stakes in his life. And based on our collective film experience, we know to look for conflict near the end of the film.
Laura, in contrast to Paterson, wants to be famous, and she wants that fame through any artistic means possible. She bakes, paints, sews (I think) and finally wants to learn to sing and play guitar. Paterson is happy in each of these new endeavors for her, but there’s a sense that he’s concerned about money and her unwillingness to stick with a hobby like he has.
But this never leads anywhere. This isn’t a big enough issue to make a big deal out of it, so he doesn’t. Paterson and Laura simply have different artistic values, but that’s only one aspect of who they are, and it’s certainly not enough to cause a bigger problem. It’s like life, in that way.
The one thing about Paterson’s life (and the film) that suggests this is unlike reality is the constant appearances of identical twins in his life. He notices them everywhere, and it’s safe to say that this is new to him. He looks twice when passing a couple identical old men on his way to work, and he smiles to himself when a girl he has met runs off to her mother and identical twin sister. Paterson notices these patterns, and it’s not that they’re twins that’s important, it’s that it’s a pattern. The pattern could be anything, but patterns, I suppose, suggest intention on some level, and I get the impression that this is what he likes, because intention leads to routine, or something like that.
Or maybe he finds some other kind of meaning in these moments. It’s like spotting a heart-shaped rock or a water stain in the face of Tom Petty. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it requests your attention, and Paterson’s attention is his most valuable asset. It’s what connects him to the world around him. He could go deaf and dumb, but as long as he can observe, than he’s alive.
Now, I suppose what’s interesting is that this doesn’t seem to be a message about what the right way to live is. Paterson’s lifestyle is hardly glorified and Laura’s ambitions are not vilified. If Paterson were wholly good, he wouldn’t look a dog straight in the eye and say “I don’t like you,” because talking down to a dog (in film) is pretty much a mortal sin.
The more I think about it, Paterson exists more as a movie character than a representation of real life, no matter how simple and realistic his life seems. Sure there are coincidences in everyday life, but you’re never going to meet someone with the same name as the city in which they live who idolizes a poet with a similarly unlikely (or repetitive) name (William Carlos Williams). And he sees twins everywhere, which never happens in life, at least with that frequency.
I’d say that these patterns and set ups work on the audience specifically because of what we know about movies. Paterson is the anti-movie character, if that makes any sense. In a typical movie, the hero doesn’t notice these patterns, but we do. That’s because these patterns are meant to hint at something, maybe his eventual demise or simply to reflect the film’s theme and tone. But Paterson is like a movie character who has come to life. He can’t not notice all these moments. But he also doesn’t notice the things we notice, such as the underlying conflict between him and his girlfriend or the threatening danger of the man in the bar becoming increasingly desperate and unhinged. These moments, though, mostly lead nowhere because that’s how life works.
So Paterson, in my mind, can only exist in relation to other movies just as Paterson feels like he can only exist in the city of Paterson. He has been shaped and molded and created to live in this city while Paterson has been shaped by other movie tropes and expectations. The ideal form of Paterson the character is the poet William Carlos Williams. He came from Paterson and became a famous poet. Laura even mentions how a book of Williams’ old poems was published, suggesting the same could be done for Paterson himself. But Paterson won’t become Williams because he doesn’t aspire to the same things.
And just like that, Paterson‘s ideal could be any number of movies, but Paterson deviates, choosing not to be a conventional film (with a third act twist, etc.). It chooses to be its own thing, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that is. Paterson the character is to Paterson the city what Paterson the film is to (500) Days of Summer (or any other familiar narrative film).