Movie Analysis: Paterson

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One of the staples of arthouse movies is that they succeed by resonating with the audience at an emotional level through subtext, even though nothing of any consequence actually happens.

Much like with micro fiction, where the implication is the story and the less said the better, this was a movie that did very well at the box office for reasons nobody can quite articulate.

So with obvious spoilers, let’s get articulating!

- Obvious Spoilers Ahead -

The plot is balls. A bus driver with a weird girlfriend and a dog that appears more human than she is, writes poems about day to day observations in his secret notebook. One day, the dog uses its teeth to rip it to shreds, and then a complete stranger gives him a new notebook for no reason whatsoever. That is literally the entirety of the plot right there. No, seriously, that’s it. That’s the whole story. This won awards dammit!

So clearly there is an entire subtextual narrative that is merely hinted at, bubbling under the surface, and it’s up to us to figure out what that is.

The most shallow take is that it’s simply an expansion of the micro fiction genre, where it hints at the presence of a bigger story that simply isn’t there, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to put it all together however they might feel. In fact, it goes to great pains to follow my guidelines by focussing on inane but overly specific meaningless details, and then making them mean something. This would certainly give it the deceptive perception of undeserved depth.

However, my take is that something more sinister is afoot, that there is a bigger story being hinted at. Let’s start by listing up some of the more jarring elements and themes:


An actor named Driver plays a driver named Paterson in an unthreatening town named Paterson—duality


An obsession with black and white—duality


An obsession with identical twins—duality


An obsession with Paterson Falls


Damned creepy music


A perfect caricature of an insane perfect girlfriend (that would get on anybody else’s nerves all the time) who never leaves the house and nobody has ever met


A judgemental dog who seems to know a little too much


A secret notebook that nobody has ever read, but said girlfriend knows is ‘genius’ and should be shared with the world


Paterson knows how to disarm an armed assailant


He lives off the grid—no phone, no internet


His bus breaking down is a turning point in the story


Various miscellaneous arbitrary story elements as presented by other characters

From this we start to build a clearer picture of what’s really going on…

Paterson (not real name) as a young soldier at Fort Dix continued his obsession with a girl he used to go to elementary school with who lived near his parents’ house. She was an identical twin. Her parents used to colour theme their clothing so they could easily be identified in photos etc.; she would always wear something white and the other something black, and they continued doing this as adults out of habit. He would often drop by her house and approach her romantically, but she would always let him down, doing her best to do so gently. She didn’t hate him, she just wasn’t interested in him.

Eventually he went a bit crazy and shot both of them, drove them to Paterson Falls and dumped the bodies there.

Fast forward to the present, where he lives out a psychosis—an identical twin reality—duality. He’s taken on the identity of the town in an attempt to blend in, and after each shift as a driver he returns home to an empty apartment. His ever-present girlfriend is a manifestation of his guilt, the dog his pragmatism. His secret book of poetry is inane ramblings of a madman, wherein he tries over and over to justify the murders. It’s his confession. His girlfriend knows he must share his confession with the world to take responsibility, but his dog disagrees, growling at him every time he begins to indulge the idea.

One day, his bus breaks down in the middle of town. This is the point where he comes to realise that his current ‘life’ is not sustainable. His ‘girlfriend’ has been talking about leaving the house, interacting with people, becoming a household name. This would never do, as she would take his secrets with her. He decides on a different course of action—they go to the cinema and watch an old black and white movie featuring twins, where he recontextualises her role in his life as a mere story. Meanwhile, the dog of pragmatism destroys the notebook.

He is now free to put the past in the past and move on with his life with a clean conscience. The girlfriend is still there, but now she just lies there silently, dead, and the dog is locked in the basement. The stranger—a deus ex machina of his own tortured narrative—gives him a new notebook as a way of beginning a fresh chapter of his life.

He had finally gotten away with it.

One of the benefits of this kind of story, one where many many questions are invited but never asked, is that you’re free to put any interpretation on top of it that you choose. Almost anything you could come up with is probably supported by the evidence if you look hard enough for it.

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