On paper, it’s easy to read the plot for Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson as bland. Throughout the course of a week, we follow Paterson as he wakes up at 6:15am, walks to work, drives a bus through the New Jersey town of Paterson, works on his poetry, comes home, walks his wife’s dog and drinks exactly one beer at a local bar. Wash, rinse and repeat. But this is Jarmusch; a man who can take something simple like drinking coffee or smoking a cigarette, and turn it into something that’s anything but mundane.
Adam Driver continues his fantastic run of performances, playing Paterson as restrained and quiet but never monotonous. He’s softly spoken without being awkward. Most of his dialogue is internal monologues as he writes his free-form poetry (written for the screen by poet Ron Padgett), and are read with more emotion than anything he speaks out loud. There’s a nuance in how his delivery changes as his poetry evolves. What begins as hesitant and contemplative slowly transforms into a confident flow the more he works on it. Golshifteh Farahani also turns in a great performance as Paterson’s wife, Laura. She’s his emotional opposite, the sporadic extroverted yin to Driver’s consistent introverted yang.
Jarmusch’s greatest strength is how deftly he creates nuanced characters, even if they only appear on screen for a minute. You can see it in Jarmusch’s previous movies Night on Earth or Coffee and Cigarettes, where short conversations speak volumes about who these characters are. Paterson, the person, is both the focus of the film and a plot-device to help us navigate through the town and the people who inhabit it.
Paterson doesn’t spend much time with these characters, with interactions lasting for a couple of minutes at most. While we don’t really get to know these people, we still kind of know these people. We know the school kids talking about the legends surrounding Hurricane Carter, or the young politics students discussing famous anarchists. We’ve overheard the conversation of two workers discussing their unlucky love lives. Hell, you might even be one of those people having these conversations. We’re all guilty of casually eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation in a café or even on public transport. It’s not harmful or intrusive voyeurism, but just something that happens by virtue of being in a public space.
In the hands of a lesser creator, this film could have easily been an obnoxiously twee Amélie But On A Bus, or a desperately self-important story of an unappreciated artist who languishes in an unfulfilling day job. But Jarmusch never gives way to these dramatic extremes. Paterson meets enigmatic characters, like a gang who warn him about the dangers of dog theft or a rapper practicing his rhymes while waiting for his laundry to finish, but it never stoops into the realm of sugar-coated whimsy.
Even the conflicts are just small, day-to-day occurrences, like a mailbox that constantly falls over or Laura’s less-than stellar attempt at cook something new for dinner. Throughout the week we follow a couple breaking up at the bar, which is far more emotional and trying than anything that happens to Paterson. When something heart-breaking does happen to Paterson, he’s sad, but he doesn’t languish in melodramatic tragedy.
There’s an old saying that you should appreciate the small things in life. These small things are where Paterson finds it’s meaning; that inspiration and happiness can come from the smallest objects or interactions. Be it the cupcakes your wife bakes for you, your morning walk to work or something as simple as the blue-tipped matches you keep around your house. There’s a simple beauty to it, in the same way there’s reassuring warmth in the safety of routine.
Long-time fans won’t be disappointed with Paterson; Jarmusch’s trademark dry wit and attention to mood are all over it. While it isn’t his most memorable work, and lacks the undeniable coolness he usually brings, (there are no undead rock-stars or samurai sword wielding gangsters here), it’s a beautifully modest movie and one of the best portraits of a working-class American you’ll ever see.
Reviewer: Chris Neill