In some ways, Paterson could be ranked among the most conventional films ever made by director Jim Jarmusch. But this superficial simplicity is deceptive, as Jarmusch’s laconically paced anti-drama is all about reading between the lines. On paper, this is a small story about art and artifice, exploring the purpose and function of creativity through the lens of the most mundane existence conceivable. But beneath the surface, there’s a depth of symbolism that will leave audiences grappling with weightier questions than the film’s minimalistic plot would seem to have any right to suggest. It’s peak Jarmusch, but probably not what most moviegoers enticed by that promise might expect.
Adam Driver stars as a poet and bus driver named Paterson, living a life of comfortable restraint in Paterson, New Jersey. While this nomenclatural conceit sounds too on the nose to be well considered, it’s the first of countless examples of repetition and mirroring that imbue Jarmusch’s script with a level of meaning only apparent when viewed from a distance. What appears to be a story of tedious monotony is suffused with significance established through recurring motifs that stubbornly refuse to yield their true purpose on a cursory viewing. Circles and squares, black and white, fires and waterfalls, countless pairs of twins — in true poetic fashion, Jarmusch’s repetition of these ideas becomes meaningful in and of itself as opposed to simply functioning as a narrative device.
Driver’s Paterson lives a life in which routine is elevated to ritual, and Jarmusch structures his film around the subtle variations in the predictable course of daily events. Paterson leads a simple existence, his lovably eccentric partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and English Bulldog nemesis Marvin (Nellie) the only chaotic elements in his carefully ordered world. Jarmusch returns to nearly identical shots of Paterson waking up next to his girlfriend, tweaking his poems as he waits to start his bus route, straightening his mailbox or stopping by the neighborhood bar for a drink after walking the dog. Tension is built almost imperceptibly, and by the time pivotal plot points finally do arise, their importance is magnified through juxtaposition with the fundamental regularity of their surrounding narrative context — it’s a tremendously delicate balancing act that Jarmusch managed to pull off in defiance of my expectations to the contrary.
Many of the hallmarks of Jarmusch’s earlier work are present, but less obtrusive than in past films — notably, his tendency to explore vignetted micro-narratives and character studies finds its perfect infrastructural venue in the form of Paterson’s ability to eavesdrop on his bus passengers, surreptitiously gleaning insight into their lives. Everything is inspiration to Paterson, and the depiction of his writing process — literally spelled out onscreen in phases as he develops his poems — shows that poetry is not just his creative outlet, it’s the lens through which he orders his worldview. Allusions to Petrarch and William Carlos Williams (a Paterson native) underscore the artistic sensibilities the film harbors, but so too do references to other notable Patersonians such as Lou Costello and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. What results is a portrait of a town seen through the eyes of an artist quietly toiling along its margins, and Jarmusch presents both the artist and his various muses with an empathetic sense of naturalism that is all the more engaging for its understatement.
Paterson should have been a non-starter for me — I’ve never liked Driver in anything, and I tend to dislike quirky, ponderously paced slice-of-life indie dramadies — but Jarmusch managed to win me over in spite of my entrenched reservations. Driver is perfectly cast and delivers a standout performance, the minimalism of the plot serves to underscore its narrative purpose to great effect, and Jarmusch’s eye for characterization is as sharp as ever. Paterson is defined by a meditative quality that put me at ease and seemed to perceptibly lower my blood pressure, a huge plus for me these days. I left the theater knowing that I had liked the film, but struggling to figure out how Jarmusch had hooked me. Rationalizations aside, I’m glad that he did. Rated R for some language.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.