Jim Jarmusch delivers a humble, quietly hypnotic poem about poetry.
Paterson spends his days driving and writing. Both things make him happy. He is, perhaps, the most content protagonist I have ever seen. He stops by the reservoir in town over his lunch break to write love poems, poems about molecules and people. When he’s at work, guiding a city bus through the small-town quiet of industrialized New Jersey, he is often seen smiling as he listens to the conversations of his passengers: college freshmen who call themselves anarchists, young boys talking about grown-up things they don’t understand, construction workers telling stories about the women in their lives that aren’t, really, in their lives. The thing we know first about Paterson is that he listens.
One of the graces of Paterson the movie is that it so patiently and trustingly teaches you how to do the same. The film takes place over 7 days, all labeled with title cards, and by the end of the 2nd it’s clear exactly what the movie is asking of you: patience, and trust. It wants to turn us all into poets – noticing, like Paterson, the pieces; the coincidences and incidents of life that are all over the place, and that betray a kind of grace. Jim Jarmusch, the director, has long been a practitioner of the hang-out movie, the movie that’s light on plot and full of tone, which relishes in simple, quotidian occurrences between its characters. Paterson takes that tendency one step further, relishing too the occurrences between objects and moments and words.
Paterson the man is played by Adam Driver, maybe the most innately interesting actor of his generation. The film remains entirely compelling because of him – it may have been more fitting to cast a less fascinating face, someone whose blue-collar look was a natural part of them, but I have a feeling the whole outing might then risk feeling like a slog. We can was Driver watch things – just watch them – and we are hooked.
Paterson lives in Paterson, New Jersey, a bit of coincidence that does not go unremarked upon. He’s a veteran, we know from a photo on his bedside table, and as the movie moves forward we sense that fact to be terribly relevant. His girlfriend, Laura, whom he lives with, presses him to publish his poetry. She, as played by Golshifteh Farahani, is an artist too, but one full of ambition: the opposite of content, she spends her days painting and rearranging their house, trying out new recipes for dinner every night, asking Paterson to buy her a guitar so that she can follow her dream – one of many – of being a country singer. Their interactions are bizzare, at first, because they are so different. Eventually, their relationship makes a certain kind of sense, but it remains the weakest part of the movie: Laura’s energy and anxiety mixes oddly with Paterson’s grounded simplicity, and I am still unsure why he listens so acutely to everything in the world but her.
At night, he walks Marvin the English bulldog down to the neighborhood bar and has a single draft beer; we never watch him finish it completely. He talks here more than he does during the day, but still prefers to observe. He’s a good guy, we understand almost immediately; in fact, he seems to be the definition of good-guyness. Sometimes his day is shaken up, slightly, such as when he sits next to a 12 year-old girl on his walk home and she reads him some of her own poetry. He remembers it, and recites it to Laura over dinner.
We follow Paterson’s daily routine 7 times, and with each passing day we learn to look forward to the same things he does: the strangers’ conversations, the walk to work where he writes in his head, the lunch break he uses to sit by the water and jot down thoughts. The poems we hear in voice-over. Aside from being quite pleasant to the ear, they seem to capture the essence of Paterson’s existence so well – Paterson the town as well as the man – that we are convinced, like Laura, that he should share them with the world.
Whether or not that happens I won’t divulge; there is an arc of sorts, a plot that relies on the little, tiny stresses on the normalcy of life to change everything subtly. There is a wealth of beauty and tenderness on display here, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be reminded of the way film can change us just by showing us images of things we wouldn’t otherwise have paid attention to: the detailed patterns on curtains; the way windshield wipers squeak when the rain has stopped falling; all the different looks on the all the different faces of the all the different people we see.
Paterson – and Paterson – is a fascinating creation. He seems to stand in for himself as much as he seems to embody the town, be its very spirit. In telling their respective stories, Jarmusch has constructed a moving argument for his own directorial vision: his method of putting mood and character ahead of plot, of searching for meaning in the little things, of trusting that an audience can want to surrender to a movie, since we so rarely get to surrender to life. He’s also crafted a humble tribute to simplicity, to art for its own sake, to patience and small acts of hard work. The young girl, a poet herself, studies Paterson as he sits next to her. “A bus driver that likes Emily Dickenson,” she says, and we smile. What could be more noble?