You can be sure nothing much will happen in a Jim Jarmusch film, but that it will fail to happen in interesting ways. Even when he dabbled in Westerns with Dead Man, or vampires with Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch focused on languorous pauses and non-events, finding his drama and comedy in the tiny shifts of everyday life. That’s never been more true than in this profoundly understated character study, which is stuffed with charm and humour but entirely devoid of major incident.
Stuffed with charm and humour but entirely devoid of major incident.
Adam Driver stars as Paterson, a bus driver and amateur poet in the industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey. Over the course of just over a week we see his life quietly unfold, full of small crises and overheard conversations on the bus. He scratches out poetry between shifts, usually sitting in contemplation beside the town’s Great Falls. At home his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), has usually created some new monochromatic artwork; even her baking is black-and-white. They eat dinner, Paterson walks his (scene-stealing) dog Marvin to a quiet bar and then goes home to bed.
That’s almost the entire plot, repeated over eight days, but Jarmusch’s eye for detail and humanity makes it close to riveting. There’s tension in the suspicion that something will upset Paterson’s quiet existence, and indeed, signals throughout suggest myriad ways that things could go wrong. Jarmusch layers parallels between his hero, the location and a book of William Carlos Williams’ poetry — also called Paterson — that clearly inspired Jarmusch and to which Driver’s character keeps returning. There are surreal touches: a preponderance of twins, and characters who might be projections of Paterson’s mind, so closely do they mirror his thoughts.
By the end it’s become almost meditative. And perhaps even profound.
Mostly, however, the supporting cast navigate their own odd little paths. Farahani is luminously good as Laura, in a role that might have been silly or even cruel in other versions of this story. She has no steady job, wiles away her days on art of varying merit and makes occasionally extravagant demands of her husband. But she’s also a creative whirlwind who is clearly as devoted to him as he is to her, lovingly designing him a packed lunch every day and experimenting with new meals each evening — to his gentle appreciation even when the results are clearly inedible.
Outside their home, Barry Shabaka Henley is warmly funny as Doc, the bartender friend who spends evenings in companionable silence with Paterson, and there are witty vignettes with passing strangers of generally cheery disposition. It’s the sort of world where characters hope to make their fortune in chess, or cupcakes, and where even violence is strangely non-threatening. There’s something nostalgic about the fading industrial landscape of the town, in Doc’s jazz bar and its visitors. Even the sort of blue-collar artist that Paterson embodies seems like one of the mid-20th century Beat poets rather than any inhabitant of the 21st.
But it’s Driver’s still, deep Paterson who makes it work, with a performance that could not be less showy, nor more effective. Paterson’s modernist poetry runs through the film, both narrated by Driver and placed on screen. It starts off sounding gauche and childlike, but by the end it’s become almost meditative. And perhaps even profound.