Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 113 mins, starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Helen-Jean Arthur, Owen Asztalos, Kacey Cockett, Luis Da Silva Jr.
“Awesome – a bus driver that likes Emily Dickinson!” one character marvels at Paterson (Adam Driver) midway through Jim Jarmusch’s beguiling new film. Paterson drives the No 23 through the New Jersey town with which he shares a name. His life seems repetitive and boring in the extreme. He takes the same walk to work.
He has the same conversation with his supervisor, whose car is always breaking down, whose wife is always complaining and whose kids are always ill. He takes the bus along the familiar route. Then he goes home. He walks the dog. He stops by for a drink at the local bar. He chews the fat with the barman. “Same old, same old,” the barman always says when asked about his life.
He sleeps with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Then he does it all again. It’s a Groundhog Day-like existence, numbing and constricted, but Jarmusch makes it seem as if Paterson is his very own garden of Eden.
It’s as if the director is setting himself the same challenge that his lead character faces, namely finding comedy, novelty, drama and magic in the minutiae of daily life. The film unfolds over the course of a week. Paterson, played with wide-eyed innocence and good nature by Driver in a role a long way from Kylo Ren in Star Wars, positively radiates contentment.
Jarmusch, meanwhile, manages to provide his audience with the same little pleasures that the bus driver so enjoys. We eavesdrop with Paterson as he listens to his passengers chattering away about everything from anarchy to imprisoned boxer, Reuben “Hurricane” Carter.
One of the pleasures, here as with so many of Jarmusch’s films, is the absolute resistance against conventional Hollywood storytelling. There isn’t conflict. Paterson doesn’t have any goal here beyond a vague desire to see his poetry in print – and that itself is something his girlfriend feels far more strongly about than he does.
This is a movie in which very little happens. A bus breaks down. A dog eats a notebook. A jealous lover pulls a stunt with a fake gun. Paterson’s girlfriend bakes cupcakes and plays her new guitar. A Japanese tourist comes to town. That’s about the sum of it. The film proceeds at the same deliberate pace that Paterson drives his bus. Somehow, the repetitions don’t chafe. They give the film its distinctive rhythm and unlikely charm.
There are references to comedians Abbott and Costello (Lou Abbott was born in Paterson and his picture is hung behind the bar) but Jarmusch doesn’t go in for Abbott and Costello-style knockabout farce. His humour is dry and understated.
Paterson isn’t the first movie the director has made about drivers. His 1991 portmanteau picture Night On Earth featured five different taxi drivers in cities around the world, taking their passengers on night-time journeys. That film felt like an exercise in pastiche. The director was adapting his style to the cities in which he was shooting.
There was Fellini-esque excess when he was in Rome, a strong sense of Aki Kaurismaki in the Helsinki scenes, and a hint of French New Wave self-consciousness about the Paris scenes. In Paterson, Jarmusch is telling the story in his own distinctive voice.
It helps that there isn’t quite so much posing going on as in some of the director’s earlier films which often featured rock stars (Tom Waits and Joe Strummer among them) in prominent roles and were sometimes shot in the same self-conscious black and white as pop promos for Eighties indie bands. The film is set in New Jersey, not New York, and makes a virtue out of its small-town provinciality.
Just occasionally, the whimsy can become exasperating. You begin to wonder just how Paterson puts up with Laura’s continual baking of cup cakes and her naive dream of learning the guitar and becoming a country singer. Marvin, Paterson’s pet bulldog, gets just a few too many close-ups. Paterson gives the impression that he is looking in on life rather than actually living it.
His domestic bliss verges on the suffocating. Under his benevolent gaze, Paterson the town is a neverland without crime or violence or squalor. You begin to wish that he’ll have a row with Laura or get drunk or have an accident driving the bus – anything to shake him out of his complacency. The only real passion he has is for the poetry of William Carlos Williams.
Then again, this is a film in which small, seemingly throwaway scenes often register the most strongly. There is one encounter which could easily have been very creepy, in which the bus driver starts talking to a young girl he meets as he walks home. She is waiting for her mother and should surely be suspicious of the strange man accosting her.
In the event, this turns out to be one of the most delicate and affecting moments in the film. She’s a poet, just like him. She recites some of her verse and he realises that she has effortlessly achieved the naive and pared-down style that he has been striving for.
This is the second Jarmusch film released in British cinemas in a matter of weeks, coming after his frenetic Iggy and the Stooges rock documentary, Gimme Danger. Danger and confrontation are precisely what Paterson lack. Its pleasures are far more subtle. Jarmusch proves that it is possible to make a film in which the everyday can be turned into something mysterious and even transcendent. This a quiet film but ultimately a very rewarding one.
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