Director: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Masatoshi Nagase
Paterson, the latest film from Jim Jarmusch, takes place in the city of Paterson, New Jersey and its lead character is named Paterson. Paterson is a bus driver, played by Adam Driver. Describing the film plainly in this manner amuses me as it shows an external layer of repetition, yet wholly undersells the richness of the experience. These small facts amount to an outer onion skin ready to be peeled away to reveal more layers. The whole of the object is satisfying for it’s completeness; it is something that feels as though it simply grew into being without struggle or plight and was meant to be exactly the way it is.
Nonsense. I can’t imagine any film just happens, and certainly not an independent film as personal as this one. But Paterson does feel effortless. It flows over the viewer with a pace so deliberate and sustained as to bring to mind the inexorably slow pull of gravity on the spoon of honey just as it’s tipped. That unhurried flood of sweetness.
Paterson is not life in slow motion, but it is life at life’s pace, edited down to present us both the patterns and the deviations. It allows us a week with our titular man, who lives in a small house with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her pet bulldog Marvin (Nellie). Every weekday morning he wakes around the same time. Has a bowl of cereal. Leaves for work with the lunch Laura has made him. And drives the bus around the city. He listens to the conversations of the patrons (affording the film a few pleasing Slacker-style diversions). After work he comes home. They eat. He takes Marvin for a walk, stopping off at a bar on the way for a beer. Lather, rinse, repeat.
He is also a poet, but to call him an aspiring one would be to misplace the sense of ambition within the film. Paterson keeps a ‘secret’ notebook either on him or locked in his nook in the basement. Throughout the day, when inspired to do so, he works on his poetry. Driver narrates as he scratches with his pen and Jarmusch presents the text on the screen. We get a sense of them being built piece by piece whenever opportunity affords some time. He seems comfortable with the poems being his alone; their creation the point rather than as a tool to any further ends. Laura wishes he would share them with the world. She believes in him.
The relationship between the two of them is not the kind usually sold to us by the movies. This isn’t a love of grand gestures but of established patterns, comfort and mutual support. These are people who’ve lived together for a while and have fallen into rhythms that they’re comfortable with. Patterns and rhythms are important here. There’s not a sex scene in the film but we know they are intimate people. Laura shows her love for Paterson by sharing her passions and her dreams. Paterson expresses himself in his poems. The performances initially read as stilted, ring-fenced, when in fact what’s been stripped away is the ‘Hollywood’ pretext of how couples talk to one another. As rhythms assert themselves through repetition, the relationship explains itself.
Laura is the film’s wide-eyed middle; she seems to have sustained an almost child-like awe at the world, which can read as naive or a little simple, but there is more to Farahani’s performance. Laura appears to conform to an outmoded stereotype of the ‘wife’ at home; without a steady job of her own, waiting for her man to come home so she can make him dinner. But Jarmusch puts ink in the water. Laura is constantly creating, filling their home with patterns as she modifies and stylises any surface she can set her artistic eye on. It’s a restlessness that extends to her far-flung dreams of country singing; something Paterson indulges lovingly. Still, it occasionally feels as though Laura is being patronised, either by Paterson or Jarmusch, which leaves an ever so slightly sour taste.
Joyfully, virtually everything else here simply charms. Driver seems to relish the opportunity to mine deep into an introverted character, while a host of supporting players add genuine value and flavour to their scenes, even if appearing only once (see Method Man). By and large Paterson is a love letter to the everyday and the humdrum, but it also acknowledges the exemplary and mysterious.
At the beginning of the film Laura talks of a dream she had of the two of them having twins. As though setting loose an infection of thought that bends reality, Laura’s words permeate the film. Identical twins pop up with increasing regularity. Like a ‘glitch in the matrix’, Jarmusch’s devotion to such details offers the notion that we alter the world around us with our words. Driver’s steady, thoughtful performance as Paterson reinforces the suggestion that we should choose our words more wisely. Should listen more carefully. Should better observe the world around us for the things we’re liable to miss.
Paterson has been released too late here in the UK. This is a wonderfully autumnal film. Set to a quasi-ambient and lilting score from SQÜRL (which brings to mind Jeff Grace’s music for Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves), Jarmusch paints Paterson, NJ as a community town in which the lush trees are turning golden brown, promising the brittle freeze of a winter yet coming, photographed warmly by the great Frederick Elmes.
The aforementioned music fits the film snugly, but if this movie were an album it would be by Yo La Tengo. American through-and-through, patient, deliberate and quietly inspiring. It lingers with you and comes to feel greater than the sum of its parts. That rare kind of film which is liked well enough at the time, sure… but loved afterward. I left the cinema feeling as though I had been ever so slightly changed, and that feeling is the reason I go, after all.