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Paterson offers a subtle, artful take on the aftereffects of war on American veterans

It’s one of the best films yet about how the country forgot its recent wars — and those who fought them.

Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson in Paterson.
In Paterson, Adam Driver plays a bus driver who’s also a war veteran.
Amazon Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Midway through Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s lovely tribute to finding the poetic beauty in everyday life, lead character Paterson (yes, that’s his name, and he’s played by Adam Driver) stops to talk to a young girl.

She, like him, is an aspiring poet. But she’s still in school, with her whole life ahead of her. He already has a job, driving a bus through the streets of Paterson, New Jersey. (Yep, it’s the name of the town, too.) His poems — written by American poet Ron Padgett — are frequently, starkly beautiful. But he’s hesitant to do anything with them.

So this is a meeting of kindred spirits, one where Paterson will realize what he truly wants to do with his life, or so we might think. Instead, he listens to the girl’s poem, praises her writing, and lets her in on the truth of his life, just a bit.

When she learns of his occupation, the little girl is tickled to know a bus driver might also like poetry. She asks him if he’s driven anything else. Sure, he says. But nothing like a bus, except for once, when he drove that “big truck.” Driver almost mumbles the words, like he’s uncertain of how to say them. It’s a confession, almost, offered to someone he’ll likely never see again.

This isn’t just the story of an artist learning to execute his craft — it’s also a story of us realizing who that man truly is. And once you realize who Paterson truly is, it becomes clear that Paterson is also a story about veterans trying to reintegrate themselves into everyday life.

Paterson has been to war. Thus, his entire life is an attempt to maintain peace.

Paterson wakes up almost the same way every day.
Amazon Studios

One of the very first things you see in Paterson — which is divided roughly equally over the seven days of a single week, allowing viewers to slowly acclimate themselves to Paterson’s rigid daily schedule — is a photo of Paterson in his military dress, one he keeps in his bedroom. (It seems to be a photo of Driver himself. The actor is a former Marine.)

The first time I saw Paterson, this simply blended into the background of the film. Sure. Paterson was a veteran. That made sense. When Jarmusch returned to the same shot of the photo much later in the film, it simply seemed part of the film’s constant return to the same visual motifs and ideas. This photo is a part of Paterson’s life, so of course we’d see it again.

The second time I saw the film, though, the importance of this particular detail resonated much more strongly. Paterson isn’t just a guy trying to lead a quiet, normal, routine life. He’s a guy who wants to lead a quiet, normal, routine life, because for some unspecified portion of his life in the past, words like “quiet” and “routine” were thrown completely out the window.

To its credit, Paterson doesn’t point a big, neon arrow at this aspect of its story, but once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere. He keeps his day’s outfit neatly folded on a chair before putting it on in the morning. When his bus breaks down, he herds all of the passengers as far away from the nearby busy street as he can. When a man walks into a local bar with a gun, Paterson knows exactly how to disarm him, but he’s shaken by the brief encounter with near-violence. Whenever something threatens to undermine his peace of mind, he seems to visibly suppress more negative emotions.

And when he’s asked why he’s so committed to his seemingly flighty wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he says that she just understands him. She can be a little unusual and all over the place, so long as she’s there to support and love him in his less stable moments. In a late scene, she’s far more mad about a slight against him than he is, and we realize that in some ways, Laura feels things for Paterson, the better to help him stay in a state of equilibrium. You go from wondering how these two ever fell in love in the film’s early going to wondering how they’d possibly survive without each other.

It’s also easy to infer that this is why Paterson’s routine, which dominates the film, is so important to him. He wakes up every morning at roughly the same time, without the aid of an alarm. He has the same bowl of cereal for breakfast. He listens to the passengers on his bus have half-finished, elliptical conversations he’ll never get to hear the ends of. He writes a little on his lunch break. After dinner, he walks his dog by the same bar and has the same drink.

This sort of routine is a comfort, a way to make sure things keep moving in the same direction, and establishing some sort of routine is often used as a way for those who have experienced trauma or destruction to cope with its long-term effects. Once you’re past the immediate hurt, you need to find a way to feel normal again. Forcibly creating normalcy is just one way of doing that.

In that sense, it’s even more poignant that Paterson is set in a fading city, among characters who are normally overlooked by American films. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about this world or these people, and the film doesn’t try to force them to be either. Maybe Paterson is the world’s next great poet. Maybe he isn’t. But he’ll still be there, driving his bus, exploring his all but forgotten city.

Last decade, America went to war, twice, then seemingly forgot all about it. It has slowly decreased its involvement in those wars (though not entirely), and it has slowly returned to what once passed for normalcy, but those wars and those who fought them are still a fabric of our lives, as much as we might pretend otherwise. They’re still there, moving forward, because it’s the only direction left to go.