Every morning, Paterson (Adam Driver), who lives in the town of Paterson, NJ, gets up. He goes to work (he’s a bus driver). He writes poetry. He comes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who always has a new project to show him. He takes the dog out for a walk. He goes to the bar, gets one beer, and talks to the owner, Doc. Rinse, wash, repeat.
In Paterson, one week in the life of Paterson is shown. How could this possibly be any more interesting than watching paint dry? I go to the movies for escape, not to watch some dude’s daily routine. How could watching seven days in a fictional character’s life be worthwhile?
Paterson reminded me of another low-key, almost drama-less indie that came out last year: Loving. I said in my review of that film about the famous Loving vs Virginia case, “(Loving) reminds me why not a lot of movies are made about introverts. It doesn’t matter how powerful those closeups of intense expressions are. It doesn’t matter how wonderful they are as role models… Quiet people simply do not have the onscreen charisma we are used to to entertain us. And I say this all as an introvert. A movie about me would not be entertaining in the least.”
Paterson is very Loving-like on the surface, minus the historical importance. It’s about Paterson, a quiet, kind, dutiful man, and his slightly more eccentric but equally as kind and lovable wife. They lead an unremarkable life, and are content. They’re even inter-racial like the Lovings, although this film does not treat that as anything but normal.
Loving doesn’t succeed as a movie because it takes what people see on the surface when it comes to quiet, calm, introverted people: silence and boredom. And that becomes the movie. (Not to say Loving doesn’t have good elements, it’s just underwhelming)
However, Paterson succeeds because it takes what goes on below the surface of quiet, calm, introverted people: observation, introspect, and a rich inner life. And that becomes the movie instead.
The cinematography of Paterson, richly done by Frederick Elmes, is Paterson’s inner monologue and observations. The shots of the shoes of people on the bus. The details of people’s knees touching. The layers of waterfalls and beers and faces and notebooks, are all visual representations of Paterson’s brain. The brain of an artist works like that, and the film is able to capture a rich inner life visually with both simplicity and bravo.
The other thing that compels the character of Paterson to be beyond what is on the surface is Adam Driver’s performance. None of his moves seem calculated. He is simply inhabiting the body of Paterson, and exploring the world around him. It is beautiful to behold. He and Farahani are so lovable in the roles, that at the slightest bit of tension I was afraid something bigger would happen and I didn’t want them to get hurt.
Luckily for me, nothing did happen to them. Well, it seems like nothing bad happens to them. The climax of the film involves (spoiler) Paterson’s notebook of poetry being torn up by a dog. Nobody except his wife even knows about his poetry. Is that really climax-worthy?
While watching the scene, my mind rushed to the other writer’s-notebook-gets-destroyed scene from one of my favorite films, Little Women (1994). Little sister Amy rips up Jo’s notebook, and Jo (understandably, from a fellow writer’s perspective) viciously attacks her.
I held my breath as Paterson and Laura walked in to see the notebook. I waited for Paterson to explode into anger, or cry, or chase after the dog. Or at least Laura to do something.
But instead they just react. Paterson doesn’t get visibly upset, because it’s nobody’s fault. Laura tries to make him feel better, but there is nothing she can do.
So I let out my breath and relaxed. Nothing bad happened to them. It’s all okay. Until you start thinking about the whole movie, and realize that it’s not okay. This really is a climax. This really is a dramatic moment for the film. Just because it’s quiet and not overblown or even truly expressed, I just spent an hour and a half watching a week in Paterson’s life, just to to feel the pain of this moment, which in any other movie would not be felt at all.
Paterson is an ode to our own beautiful lives. No matter how ordinary, or routine, or small, what we do and how we act and how we interact with people around us matter. The more you observe it, the more poetic- whether sad or hopeful- it becomes. Our lives fuel our art and passions, so that itself gives it worth.
Paterson, like its lead, has more going on under the surface, and it’s dazzling in its own peculiar way.