Most of Jim Jarmusch’s best movies are journey films, charting a character’s movements between two points — geographic but also spiritual and temporal. The more protracted the route, the stranger and better the movie.
So it is with Paterson, which follows, with Bressonian simplicity and Akermanesque repetition, a week in the life of a Paterson, N.J., bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver). He shares an unremarkable life with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a creative homemaker, cupcake auteur and aspiring guitarist. At night, before work and during his lunch break, Paterson writes poetry. He’s a fan of Paterson native William Carlos Williams, and he keeps a photo of Dante Alighieri in his lunchbox.
Jarmusch’s films are so rife with artistic and cultural references — this movie’s run from Iggy Pop to Frank O’Hara to 1932’s Island of Lost Souls — that we shouldn’t read too much into each one, but it’s hard not to think of Paterson as our workaday Virgil, leading us through an odyssey that is as recognizable as it is enlightening. Every day, Paterson wakes up, checks his watch, gets out of bed, eats Cheerios, boards his bus, works his shift, returns home, adjusts his perpetually askew mailbox, eats Laura’s home-cooked meal, walks Marvin, his English bulldog (the canine actor is a master of deadpan comic timing) and stops at his favorite local bar for a late-night pint. When he’s not doing these things, he’s considering his next poem or scribbling it longhand into his “secret notebook,” the words materializing through voiceover and onscreen text.
Along the way, he eavesdrops on the conversations of a cross-section of urban commuters and meets the sort of fascinating, international characters that show up with heightened regularity in Jim Jarmusch films — a street rapper (played by professional rapper Method Mad) testing out lyrics in a Laundromat, a lovesick barfly proffering profound summas on love, a 10-year-old girl who happens to be a poet who writes longhand in a secret notebook. One character can only be described as an angel in the flesh. (And keep an eye out for Barry Shabaka Henley, who played Louis Armstrong in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 2016 production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, portraying a droll, chess-playing barkeep.)
Paterson is rife with the kind of unlikely synchronicities that do seem to actualize when we look for them, and Jarmusch’s camera eye — and narrative — is as clear and curious as ever. He observes the scuffs on characters’ shoes, a distinctive matchbox that inspires one of Paterson’s poems, the suds of its everyman poet’s beer, each quotidian detail accruing to form a picture of universal truth. Keep a lookout for twin siblings and waterfalls, and you’ll see them everywhere.
Paterson’s sterling exercise in formal rigor is also a philosophical meditation on time. The title character’s daily routine achieves a kind of Zen comfort, the hours and days bleeding into the next, their contents elegantly superimposed atop each other for maximum fluidity. Driver’s protagonist is a mesmerist of road hypnosis, a Travis Bickle of the mundane.
Yet the film is not without its catharses, even if its initial disruptions into Paterson’s life are more sound than fury. One scene is so heartbreaking you’ll want to weep. Conversely, Driver’s chemistry with Farahani generates some of the tenderest moments of companionship in the director’s canon; I saw my own marriage, to some extent, in their coupling.
But Jarmusch is far too detached a director to let sentiment encroach on his characteristic bluntness. Besides, if Paterson’s series of interconnected interludes tells us anything, it’s that yin-and-yang wrestle for dominance as always. Life is full of ups and downs, setbacks and reversals, triumphs and tragedies, and all we can do is take them in stride, rebound and get back in the driver’s seat.
PATERSON. Director: Jim Jarmusch; Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase; Distributor: Amazon; Rating: R; Opens: Today at AMC Aventura and Regal South Beach in Miami Beach; Palm Beach theaters TBA