NYFF Film Review: Patterson
Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver, plays the titular Patterson, about a guy who lives in the city in New Jersey of the same day. The film, another selection by the discerning committee of the New York Film Festival, achieves what few films strive for, let alone accomplish: to be about a lot of things without being about a whole hell of a lot.
We follow Patterson, a benign and tender bus driver for NJ Transit, throughout an entire week of his life. He wakes up thanks to an internal alarm clock that goes off more or less precisely—regardless of how many beers Patterson has had the night before. On Monday, his somewhat self-involved but caring girlfriend ominously begs him to take care of Patterson’s most valuable treasure: his poetry collection. Patterson sees the simple beauties of the world he lives in, and appreciates the little things, in ways that lead him to write assonant poems of love to existence. He writes on his lunch break, which he normally takes on a bench overlooking a river spawning a grand waterfall, and he writes before his shift starts.
At night, Patterson engages in a mundane and repetitive but somehow deeply satisfying routine. He has dinner with his girl (who has spent most of the day spritzing around the house indulging her own artistic fantasies but mostly doing nothing other than preparing dinner), he takes their pudgy dog out for a walk, and he sits down at a local bar for a beer or two to discuss the vicissitudes of life. Every day follows almost exactly the same pattern, with minor variations that hide the key to unlocking the crux of this meticulous story.
Patterson focuses, as the film invites the audience to, both on the diurnal and the unexpected. By the time Thursday rolls around, you anxiously anticipate the walk of the dog and the visit to the pub. The film brilliantly makes you feel the need that he does for the known quantity, for the boring routine that is comforting and, to greater minds such as his, inspiring. But you also look forward to the minuscule differences, the little morsels from which Patterson also attains stimulation and which teach us and him as much as the humdrum does.
At the center of this lyrical film is Adam Driver in a career best performance. Though some may have rightly said that his “give in to the dark side” anger in The Force Awakens felt pristinely prepared, his contemplative good guy in Patterson feels refreshingly honest and unrehearsed. The rendering is so genuine that it feels like a window into the actor’s own character, and regardless of whether or not it is actually true, it is of course the goal of any great performer.
There is little bad to say about Patterson except for its otherwise excessive quietness, and a supposedly symbolic encounter with a Japanese poet in the closing act is more of a head scratcher that does not seem to fit tightly into the narrative thread of the film. The movie shines brightest when we see the simple world that Patterson inhabits through his own eyes—the world of shoes, of depots, of silly conversations in a bus seat, of cupcakes and twirling girlfriends—in that scene, we are jolted a tad away from the more interesting hero.
But at bottom Patterson succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is to be a film about life and love, about inspiration and happiness in the repetitive in original and warming perspectives. It is somewhat strange to see this actor transition from the iconic Star Wars franchise to a staid role in a quiet drama about poetry. But while you may never quiet forget the Skywalker blood in him, you will be undoubtedly unsettled—in a good way—by the sincerity of his infatuation with existence.