Walking out of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson last May at Cannes, I felt like it was the closest the director had come to making an artistic manifesto. Having seen it again, I’m even more convinced. Jarmusch first arrived in New York back in the 1970s with dreams of becoming a poet, and although he quickly gave that up for music and filmmaking, poetry has remained a touchstone for him: Christopher Marlowe appeared as a character in his last film, Only Lovers Left Alive, and the hero of his Zen Western Dead Man was named William Blake.
Paterson is the purest distillation yet of his aesthetic. The title refers to the town in New Jersey as well as the character: Adam Driver plays a man named Paterson, who lives in Paterson. (It also refers to William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece Paterson, an epic poem about splendor in the everyday.) Paterson goes through his daily routine: waking up, talking to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), driving a bus, walking his dog. The language of real life drifts in and out of his world. He hears men talking about women, kids talking about revolution and coffee, a rapper practicing his rhymes, a co-worker complaining about his family. He carves his poems, slowly, patiently out of all that mundane material. "We keep plenty of matches in our house," he writes. "Recently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond Brand.” Then he goes on to fixate on the match’s shape, and its megaphone-like logo. That may not sound like much, but Paterson keeps coaxing the words until he lands on the image of one of those matches "lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love for the first time."
This poetry sounds ... not unlike a film by Jim Jarmusch, steadily building meaning and beauty out of simplicity and routine. Jarmusch’s movies usually have tangible narrative arcs — even if they’re loose and subdued — but Paterson is resolutely undramatic, following a week in this man’s life with minimal changes in his day-to-day. And yet, with each step, the film gains depth. Small variations in routine start to feel monumental, and the briefest encounter can seem like a sign of something great.
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But while Paterson channels his experiences into his poems, Laura is an artist of a different sort, always searching for new outlets for her creativity: learning an instrument, redecorating the house, designing an outfit, baking cupcakes. For her, expression is freedom, and she feels free to try any and everything; for Paterson, we suspect, creation involves stripping away, honing and sharpening. And while the film’s attention is fixated on Paterson himself — I have several colleagues who feel that Jarmusch’s narrative shortchanges Laura — her competing energy suggests that these two, in their own way, complete each other.
Driver’s defining quality heretofore has been his intensity, so he might not seem at first the right choice for a part like this. But he grows into it beautifully: Paterson is a big lug who drives a big bus, and the actor is able to convey thought without ever seeming self-absorbed. Paterson might be composing poems in his mind, but he’s also aware of his world; he lives in the moment, absorbing the bits and pieces around him and shaping them into something new.
But there’s an edge to him, too: You can see how, in another context and setting, this gentle soul could be tough. (Like Driver himself, Paterson is a veteran, and at one point he has to quickly disarm an armed man; he does so efficiently.) Maybe that’s the secret to the character and the film’s centeredness — Paterson’s calmness seems more pronounced because we have this slight, queasy sense that it could tip over. There are many moments that, in other films, could presage the beginning of something more dramatic: a shouting match; an automotive failure; a random, puzzling encounter or two. But the film keeps its even keel. So maybe there are two sides to Jarmusch’s manifesto: Finding joy and beauty in the everyday is not just an aesthetic priority, he seems to suggest, but an existential imperative for the uneasy soul.
Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, and Helen-Jean Arthur. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Rated R. 115 minutes. Opens Friday, January 20.