Film review | Paterson: The yearning desire for a quieter world

Your friendly neighbourhood film critic is currently in Rome, sampling the cinematic delights of the Eternal City – here’s hoping some of these films make their way down to our shores • 4/5

Adam Driver is the king of understated fragility in Jim Jarmusch’s slow-burning comedy
Adam Driver is the king of understated fragility in Jim Jarmusch’s slow-burning comedy

Not a great deal happens in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, Paterson, about the titular bus driver-cum-poet (Adam Driver) from the titular New Jersey town. This will hardly come as a surprise to fans of the cult filmmaker, whose reputation as a slow-burning but also irresistibly charming storyteller has held him in good stead for some decades, and which only seems to have aged like fine wine as the years roll on. 

Even his attempts at a Western (with the Johnny Depp-starring Dead Man) and vampire romance (the more recent Only Lovers Left Alive, featuring an intoxicating Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) were tackled from an oblique perspective, favouring atmosphere and rambling dialogue over action, with droll but humane humour punctuating their journey. 

Needless to say, they are films that can test a certain viewer’s patience, but neither are they punishing slogs that pretentious film buffs will take to as rallying cries against the Hollywood machine and the sheep that follow it blindly. 

Rather, Jarmusch specializes in finding moments of charm and vulnerability in what often plays out as a mix of everyday drudgery and the iconography of Americana. He is someone conversant with US counterculture – a fact readily apparent by his other recent work, Gimme Danger, a documentary about The Stooges – and its tendency toward extolling the informal as something of unique and urgent cultural value. So in a sense, Paterson works as a perfect melding together of some of his favourite themes and stylistic tendencies. 

Fey: Golshifteh Farahani
Fey: Golshifteh Farahani

Folding together the protagonist’s name with that of the apparently unassuming New Jersey town, Jarmusch reminds us throughout the course of the film that the place has marked the biographies of both William Carols Williams and Allen Ginsberg – literary touchstones for Paterson-the-bus-driver-poet – and so the film serves as something of a low-key tribute to an area that deserves more credit than it’s got.

Working from lines penned by American poet Ron Padgett, Jarmusch and Driver create a character who truly lives up to the moniker of ‘street poet’. He drafts his lines after kissing his fey and wonderful wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) good morning and before setting off on his bus shift, continuing to beat them into shape on his lunchbreak, for which he always sits by a nearby waterfall (the only picturesque setting in Jarmusch’s unapologetically suburban filmic landscape). 

Taking place over the span of a week, Jarmusch’s film makes no excuses for its repetitive structure. But his sensitivity for sometimes broad, sometimes wry humour (Laura and Paterson’s English bulldog Marvin provides most of the former) reels us in, and the lack of any conventional plot development – and better still, the eschewing of any contrived twists – makes us feel like we’re watching a film whose purpose is not to lull us into escaping our lives, but that wants to make us feel less alone in our mundane reality. 

A remarkable feat, given that Paterson could just as easily have been the ultimate ‘special snowflake’ film, with our poet depicted as struggling against the soul-crushing drudgery of everyday life, which would only be leavened by his versifying and the calming presence of his cupcake-baking, curtain-painting, country-and-western-guitar-playing wife. Instead, Paterson plays to the charm and dignity of its characters and their daily grind. 

It’s a special film, but one that’s about all of us.