With Paterson, Jim Jarmusch has made one of his most meticulous, laid back and visually lovely, and best, films. The picture spans the course of a week in the life of a bus driver from Paterson, New Jersey who happens to be named Paterson (Adam Driver in a great understated performance), his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her adorably grouchy bulldog named Marvin, the best on-screen pet since Inside Llewyn Davis, a film to which this picture bears more than a few similarities.
Paterson lives a rigorously routine existence. Every morning, he awakens on his own by what his wife refers to his “silent alarm watch,” heads to the depot where he boards the bus he’ll drive all day, takes a lunch break sitting in front of the Paterson Falls where he writes poetry, comes home to have dinner with Laura, walks Marvin and pays a visit to a local bar, where he cavorts with an odd assortment of characters, including a barkeep (Barry Shabaka Henley) obsessed with the town’s history of celebrities (Lou Costello and the Vivino brothers, for instance), a young man smitten with a girl who has lost interest, and a set of pool-playing twins.
Until the finale when Marvin does something very naughty that throws Paterson into what appears to be some sort of spiritual agony, there is very little in the way of drama. Laura prepares for a bake sale where she can sell her cupcakes, but also designs the home’s curtains and sends for a guitar that she intends to learn to play so that she can become a country singer. Paterson writes his poetry, drives his bus, walks Marvin and visits the bar.
But there’s something going on underneath all of this that you don’t ultimately realize is taking place until after Paterson’s aforementioned moment of grief and a chat with a stranger visiting the town who, much like Paterson, loves poetry and, especially, the hamlet’s laureate, William Carlos Williams, who lived in Rutherford, but wrote an epic poem about Paterson. “I breathe poetry,” the stranger tells Paterson, who finds the inspiration that he needs at that time. This chance meeting, which rivals only the offbeat encounter between the protagonist of A Serious Man and a neighbor in his driveway, is also a mantra for the film itself: if you can “breathe poetry,” or find beauty in the mundane, then your life will be all the richer for it.
But Paterson is also concerned with what one does in his or her spare time often best defines them. While Paterson is a bus driver dreaming of being a poet (the film’s poems written by New York School member Ron Padgett), Laura ponders being a country singer. There’s also a barkeeper who wants to be a chess player, a laundromat employee (Method Man) who dreams of being a rapper and Paterson’s beleaguered boss who wishes to have any other life than the one he has.
Although Paterson’s existence is routine almost to a fault, we sense there is more going on there. During a scene in which he breaks up a potentially dangerous scene at the bar, the film cuts to a shot of a framed picture of Paterson in military garb. There’s a melancholic aspect to his character, but he seems content. He loves Laura, he seems to find amusement eavesdropping on his bus’s passengers (two young wannabe anarchists and two young men bragging hilariously about their near-conquests) and his poetry inspires him.
His life, much like our own, is frequently grounded in the mundane, but he recalls that his father used to sing “Swinging on a Star” to him. Jarmusch’s latest film finds beauty in life’s smallest details and explores how by observing the miraculous in the commonplace, we can all “breathe poetry” in our daily lives.
Watch the Paterson trailer below: