Director: Jim Jarmusch
R | 1h 53min | Comedy, Drama | 25 November 2016 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
Adam Driver swaps the robes and lightsabre of the Star Wars universe for a more low-key, ruminative role in Jim Jarmusch’s endearing, richly textured new drama, Paterson. Dialled-back even by Jarmusch’s usual, laconic standards, this restrained but warmhearted film, about an amateur poet getting by in a blue-collar job while drawing inspiration from the world around him, not only is a showcase for another great performance from the increasingly intriguing Driver, but also evokes a very tangible and frankly irresistible sense of place. And yes, it is very, very “cool” overall, though in a less in-your-face way than some of Jarmusch’s brassier works.
Paterson, for those who don’t know, is actually both the main character’s first name, but also, in what seems to be a quirk of fate that probably isn’t at all, the name of the compact post-industrial city that he lives and works in: Paterson, New Jersey. This strange twinning occurrence pops up again and again throughout the film, one of the little semi-magical touches Jarmusch sprinkles throughout what is otherwise a story very much about the very everyday goings on - over the space of seven days - of the titular character. Driver’s character is a bus driver dutifully handling one of the central-to-suburb routes in Paterson. The film largely follows the rhythms of his life: and he rarely deviates from his routine. He gets up at 6.15 every morning, walks the same route to the quaint little bus garage which seems to be based in an old brick factory (one of the many former, reclaimed industrial locations the camera lovingly dotes on), and drives the same route every day. Nights are for walking the drooling mutt Marvin, and stopping off at for a brew at a twee local bar called Shades, which, of course, is run by the garrulous barkeep Doc (the great Barry Shabaka Henley) who knows Paterson and just about everybody else inside and out. It doesn’t seem like a particularly exciting life, but it sure is being lived in a pleasant place, with the city giving off that seductive feel of being quieter and spacier than a major metropolis like New York. A city where people probably know their neighbours, and everyone on their block too.
But in between the spaces of all this activity - days taken up crisscrossing the city, overhearing snippets of passengers’ conversations - Paterson is slowly but steadily filling up his ‘secret notebook’ with short, down-to-earth (and thankfully un-corny) poetry. Throughout the day, Paterson mulls over the words flowing through his mind, observing fragments of life and constructing verses out of lived experience. As played by Driver, Paterson is neither a raging romantic not an introvert when it comes to how he handles this clearly powerful artistic drive. He’s quiet, observant, obviously intelligent (his bookcase at home is testament to his curiosity), and his distinctly non-artistic job makes him something of a totem for the refusal of creativity to be limited by salary, class or projections about what kinds of paid roles are “suitable” for an artist.
Driver doesn’t have a lot of dialogue on screen, Paterson being the ruminative type, but thankfully that gap in the film is filled nicely by the character of Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a freelance artist, baker and homemaker who is Paterson’s long-term partner. They live together in a small but impossibly quirky house with the bulldog Marvin, and one of the film’s most enjoyable recurring gags is watching Laura’s artistic impulses run away with her whenever Paterson is out at work. She is driven to make everything monochrome and groovy, including curtains, cupcake toppings, and the house seems to have been further repainted in this colour scheme every time Paterson returns home. There is something so charming about watching Driver’s face take on a look of affectionate resignation in the face of his girlfriend’s enthusiasms. It is easy to think that Laura, being almost comically hipsterish, is Jarmusch’s way of quietly poking fun at his own well-known predilections for the Beat life.
Though not a lot seems to happen across the seven days shown in the film (probably the most dramatic is Paterson’s bus breaking down, and one of his friends scares everyone in the bar by waving a toy gun around) the film is rich in the incident detail of everyday life in this everyday city, and Driver effectively communicates to us how constantly attuned his character is to the extraordinary and poetic in the seemingly ordinary and un-poetic. The screenplay really captures the way things nestle in our minds. Thus, the first poem we see Paterson hammering into shape is about, of all things, the blue box of matches with the retro logo that he and Laura find really cute. He and Laura have, independently of each other, so fallen in love with these matches that they have collected a ridiculous number of them, and Paterson sees allegorical material here for a love poem.
Not everything that he experiences seems to make its way into his notebook during the film, but you can imagine some of it will surely make its way into his work by osmosis at some point: be it the weird number of twins and identically-dressed people he keeps seeing get on and off his bus, the collection of endearingly mundane Paterson-oriented news cuttings Doc is pinning to his the wall behind his bar, or his friend Everett’s extremely unsuccessful, desperate attempt to shock his girlfriend into acknowledging his undying love. Paterson even meets a young teen girl outside his bus station one morning, she too brandishing a notebook that he seems to instantly know as a marker of her status as a fellow traveller . His curiosity encourages her to offer him a reading from one of her poems, which sports a pair of opening lines that resonate with the older poet all day long.
In its own quiet, unhurried way, Jarmusch’s film gradually invites you to ease into it, to flow with its gentle rhythms, with moments of sweet comedy scattered throughout to prevent things getting too ponderous. There are also plenty of appealing retro stylings applied to the setting and characters that Jarmusch fans will recognise as his signature: Paterson naturally eschews smartphones and laptops, and though we don’t really see him talk about music, you can bet he has a vinyl collection down in that basement somewhere. Irony is absent, and there is no mocking of Paterson’s poetry or the quiet civic pride he seems to have in the city he is named for. There isn't even any real conflict in the film beyond Paterson counting down the days before he takes up Laura’s challenge and finally makes some copies of his notebook - and it never feels like there should be. Instead we have a heartfelt, subtle but confidently-drawn depiction of how lovers can co-exist and support each other’s creativity, and a joyous and unpatronising celebration of small town life.