The hero of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film Paterson is named Paterson. He lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his wife Laura. Paterson wakes up early, kisses his wife, has breakfast, leaves the house carrying his tin lunch box, and heads to work as a bus driver. His bus is always No. 23, with the word “Paterson” displayed on the front. He stops for lunch at the Great Falls, his favorite spot, and eats the same sandwich he always eats. At the end of the day, he returns home and eats dinner with his wife. Paterson repeats this routine every day and for almost two hours, the audience witnesses Paterson live his predictable life, with only slight variations from day to day. There are no major conflicts and no plot twists. The film ends virtually the same as it began.
The film’s simplicity and lack of traditional narrative may strike some as excruciatingly boring, perhaps even insulting. However, if you reduce Paterson to its plot points, then you have missed more than half of the film’s beauty. Despite the film being so grounded in the mechanisms of daily life, magic still bleeds through the edges of its details. In a day and age of endless sensory overload, the mere existence of a film like Paterson is a miracle. Followers of Jarmusch’s previous work know that he is a man of minimalism and contemplation. His films are never rushed or hurried, always eschewing clear plot progression in favor of fostering mood and character development in approximate real time. Paterson is a film meant to be watched with undivided attention, as its power manifests itself in the film’s meticulous pacing.
Of course, there is more to Paterson than his daily routine. There has to be, especially since he is portrayed with incredible nuance by Adam Driver in what is perhaps his finest performance to date. At first glance, Paterson’s long face, full of anxiety and intent, seems to suggest that he may be a serial killer or a child abductor. However, the humanity in Jarmusch’s direction and Driver’s empathetic performance instead paint Paterson as a man of intense privacy. He is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, not out of fear or apathy, but out of sincere kindness. Why must he be so intensely private if his lifestyle suggests nothing less than a midlife crisis? Well, it’s because he writes poetry. In fact, his poetry defines him as much as, if not more than, the bus he sits in almost every day. His poems lack rhyme schemes and often consist of musings on occurrences and observations of everyday life. Sitting at his wheel before departing or hunched over a sandwich during a lunch break, Paterson writes painstakingly in his notebook, conjuring images of his home. He uses the random conversations he hears on his bus as inspiration and the Great Falls to focus his thoughts.
Paterson also reads his poems aloud in voice-overs, word after careful word, as if every line is slowly being squeezed out of him. Shots of Paterson writing and the images he describes are overlaid with his handwritten poems, every visual element blending and mixing together. Frederick Elmes’ cinematography is undeniably gorgeous, turning the concrete blandness of New Jersey into something quietly romantic, and Affonso Gonçalves’ editing is astute, never veering off into gimmickry. You can see what Jarmusch is up to with these shots. He is making the effort, an effort that is rarely exerted, to dramatize the process of poetic composition in a visceral and engaging way. Is Jarmusch completely successful? Quite frankly, I don’t even know what successful looks like, as it has never been fully achieved. The great David Fincher struggled with this himself on his 2010 magnum opus The Social Network, where he had to turn coding and website building into something as tense as a crime thriller. Considering that even talented directors like Fincher struggle with portraying the ineffable creative process, Jarmusch’s accomplishment with Paterson is no small feat.
I’ve always associated great films more with poetry than novels. To me, Jarmusch’s choice of poetry as a tool for Paterson’s characterization is particularly apt. Much like Paterson’s poetry, the film steers clear of any grand plot or structure and subtly nudges viewers to pick up on the minutiae, to weigh each piece of dialogue with value and understand the world through Paterson’s keenly observant eyes. We as an audience become poetic magpies, picking up snippets of conversation and shavings of sensation to build our own nests of lyrical diction. Not a moment is wasted. Because of Driver’s exceptional ability to convey the act of thinking, the audience gains a beautiful perspective with which to experience the world. Paterson lives the plainest of lives, and yet he still finds those invaluable sparks of inspiration. The film teaches us that ultimately, life is worth living, if only for those sparks. A+