In a time of constant overstimulation where everyone seems polarized, every conversation is an argument, and every form of art is meant to be consumed and disposed immediately, there’s something soothingly sweet about the latest film from Jim Jarmusch.
That prematurely gray indie filmmaking pioneer, arbiter of cool, and master of deadpan has returned with easily his smallest and softest film. All of Jarmusch’s movies are essentially about the moments between the big dramas that make up most movies. They’re about outsiders coasting and biding time between major life events (even when they’re vampires). With few exceptions, Jarmusch likes to take his inspirations from the smallest of interactions and blow them up on the biggest of screens. In ‘Paterson’, the director has created a film dedicated to finding joy and art in the everyday and it’s one of his most personal and profound projects to date.
Adam Driver stars as a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. All of those repeated words are deliberate. The character is also a poet and the film is constructed like a poem with rhymes and repetitions for emphasis and exploration. The movie is structured more around Paterson’s daily routine than a plot. He wakes up each morning, walks to work, drives his bus, returns home to his loving girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani) for dinner, walks his dog in the evening, has a drink in a local bar, comes home, goes to sleep, repeat. Within that structure, Jarmusch has Paterson soak up all the moments, images and especially people that appeal to him. He finds magic and wonder in the mundane. He translates it to poetry that he seemingly writes for himself and he’s rather good at it. He also finds the magic of life (in the least twee way possible, I swear) in those simple observations. Gradually, that translates to the audience as well.
Taken at face value, ‘Paterson’ sounds like the most irritatingly manipulative Sundance fare imaginable. (Can you believe a bus driver is also a poet?! Also, get a load of all this mundane life stuff. Isn’t that kind of like poetry too?!) In anyone else’s hands, it likely would be. Not Jarmusch, though. He doesn’t know how to write to convention, and even though his humor often comes with an ironic distance, he’s always completely sincere about the art that he makes. The filmmaker achieves a subtle power here. In the early going, ‘Paterson’ almost feels so small that the movie barely registers. Yet over time, repetition, and through poetry (visual, written, observed and otherwise), it all adds up to something that feels potent, powerful and warm.
First, there’s the beautiful central relationship between Driver and Farahani. They’re radically different in some respects (he’s a quiet reserved creature of habit, she’s a bouncing ball of energy and forever in search of new projects), but they click in profound ways not immediately visible. They fit each other not in some exaggerated sense of Hollywood romance, but in the ways that people find joy and support in each other. That grows gradually over the course of the film. At first, they’re comedic opposites, then gradually it becomes clear they’re perfect compliments. The performances are wonderfully natural and play off each other with a beautiful subtlety that signifies a deeper unspoken bond. It happens so slowly that you barely notice, and by the end you’ll miss their presence as the credits roll.
That’s true of the film as a whole. At the start, the way Jarmusch (and his protagonist) linger on half-grasped conversations of bus passengers, bar patrons and passers-by feels like a series of cute comedy sketches. Then they grow into more pointed human observations. Initially, the locked-off camera aesthetic seems minimalist, but slowly the glowing colors of Frederick Elmes’ palette and Jarmsuch’s meticulous composition take on their own style and power. The character’s poetry that plays in voiceover and is written across the screen seems like a cute quirk until it reveals itself to be an essential and graceful component. Jarmsuch never transcribes or vocalizes the deeper truths and artistic ambitions of the piece until a brief conversation at the very end, which is also not coincidentally the film’s weakest moment. The power, humor, emotion, warmth and satisfaction of ‘Paterson’ come in culmination and the film sneaks up on you with the softest touch.
It would be an exaggeration to say that ‘Paterson’ is Jim Jarmusch’s best movie. He’s done too much good work and it’s all so deliberately and intriguingly different. However, there’s something profoundly personal here that makes it special. ‘Paterson’ feels lived-in, while some of his work can feel archly stylized. The movie has warmth, sweetness and emotional depth. It also captures the way meandering human observation can transform into art in a manner that’s likely true to the way the filmmaker works himself.
There’s quite a bit to love and dig into here, even though the surface is surprisingly accessible and droll. However, you can’t call it the filmmaker’s best because the movie is deliberately trying to be too subtle and simple for such labels. Maybe that’s the trick. Jarmusch made a masterpiece while deliberately avoiding all the qualities that usually define a cinematic masterwork. It’ll take a few more viewings to be sure. One thing is certain, though. This sweetly powerful and subtly hilarious ode to the mundane joys of the human condition couldn’t be a more vital cinematic experience right now. It’s a gently comforting cinematic hug to escape a world gone madder than most movies. Thanks, Jarmusch. Who knew there was so much coolness in simple sincerity? You were always ahead of the curve.