Paterson is a hypnotic look into the life of a poet
Jim Jarmusch might be the most relaxed, contemplative filmmaker working in the Western world. From his early deadpan comedies (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law) to his take on Westerns (Dead Man), gangsters (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), and vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive), Jarmusch’s filmography has been typified by a slow pace, hypnotic imagery, and colourful, interesting characters. However, even for a director as thoughtful as Jarmusch, Paterson is a slow burner.
Unfolding over seven days in the life of a bus driver and amateur poet living in the eponymous New Jersey town (which also happens to be his name), Paterson focuses on the gentle rhythms and routines that give the budding poet (Adam Driver) his inspiration, creating a beautiful mood poem as heartwarming as it is ultimately melancholic. Paterson is an unassuming chap; despite clues to his previous life in the military, he’s content to spend his days driving the bus, eavesdropping on passengers’ conversations and returning home to his artistic, quirky girlfriend (the adorable Golshifteh Farahani), who nurtures his talent despite being preoccupied with painting the house and becoming a country musician. At night, Paterson walks his scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin to a local bar, where he observes lovestruck couples and a sharp witted barman. And that’s about as much plot as there is…
Like Groundhog Day, Paterson is built around the idea of each day starting the same and changing in tiny, seemingly insignificant ways that come to have a greater meaning. It is in these quiet, reflexive moments of the day that Driver’s poet comes alive, his unassuming face and slightly hunched walk giving way to gorgeous poetry (written by actual poet Ron Padgett). If there is a dramatic story at the heart of Paterson, it’s that of the genius artist hiding as an ordinary everyman. Repeatedly, Farahani pleads with Paterson to copy his work and get it published, but Paterson is happy driving his bus and writing on his breaks. Mostly free of dramatic incident (the only gun in the film fires foam pellets), Paterson does get more melancholic in its final stretch, climaxing with a low-stakes-but quietly-devastating scene, followed by a slightly surreal encounter with a Japanese poet who lights a new spark in Paterson.
To the more impatient viewer, Paterson could be too incidental and plotless; those who approach the film with a looser mind-set will find themselves lost in charming little Paterson, New Jersey. Home to poets, aspiring artists, and the ordinary folk inhabiting bus depots and bars, Jarmusch has crafted a truly charming and very funny film that observes the true pleasures in life. The film could still read as too vague if not for the stunning central performance from Adam Driver, who broke into the A-list with Star Wars last year and now seems fit to take over the world. It’s strange to see this physically imposing, intense man playing such a romantic soul, but Driver relaxes his lanky hipster energy to fully inhabit the role of a man content to listen, whether that be to the deadpan bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley) he shares a drink with every night, or girlfriend Farahani, with whom he shares a love that is thrilling in how refreshingly pleasant and drama-free it is. In a year stuffed with great leading actors, Driver is so naturalistic and quiet, it’s easy to overlook just how great he really is.
Slow yet hypnotic, plotless yet absorbing, joyous yet sorrowful – Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is one of the finest films of the year and perhaps a late career high for the indie auteur. Some may find the film frustrating in its avoidance of drama, but by focusing on the tiny details of everyday life, Paterson stumbles upon real poetry.
By Harry J. Ford
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