Jim Jarmusch is not a director I have had a lot of experience with. A viewing of Down By Law many years ago and about 20 minutes of Only Lovers Left Alive are all I lay claim to. So even when Paterson came and went, earning almost unanimous glowing praise, my interest was still barely piqued. But on a cold Winter’s night I though, why not.
Paterson is an unusual beast; extremely hard to pin down my own feelings for it, let alone putting them into words. What strikes me first is how unremarkable the story is. Paterson is a bus driver in the city with which he shares his name. He shares a small house in the suburbs with his endearingly sincere wife Laura and English Bulldog Marvin. Paterson is also a buddy poet, albeit with no outward interest in sharing his poems with anyone but his wife. He spends his days working, writing poems when he has time, going home to eat dinner with his wife and to see what quirky art she has worked on for the day, then takes Marvin for a walk to a local bar where he does a small amount of socializing.
We spend a week with Paterson and this routine, half the time expecting something to happen that will kick the plot into motion. But besides a broken down bus, naughty dog and a man with a gun (not as exciting as it seems in context), the story steadily treads the line of a quiet man and his day-to-day life.
Thematically, Paterson is difficult to assess. Jarmusch is clearly more interested in simply shining a light on everyday, suburban America and the people who populate it. Yet I can’t help feeling he also aims to make a quiet statement on dreams and aspirations, and the way different people identify and work towards them. Paterson is an extremely even-tempered man, a world away from the Troy Maxson’s and Desmond Doss’s. Even Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler has a much more cinematic personality than Paterson. But he is a talented poet and seems to have the inner workings of someone who isn’t content to simply drive a bus. Despite this, his wife is constantly asking him to make copies of all his poems, while he is content to let them sit unread in his notebook.
Laura on the other hand, who spends most of the week coming up with esoteric designs for their home’s door frames and shower curtains, is not afraid to outwardly express her grand ambitions. Be it a running a hugely successful cupcake chain or a world famous country western singer, she sets her bar high and doesn’t hold back in expressing so. Outside our main couple we see other characters outwardly expressing their goals: barkeep Doc aiming for chess success; a man deeply in love and unwilling to let rejection get in the way; and a young girl who also has a passion for poetry, and is willing to share her talent with Paterson. It is a stretch to say the film is about aspirations, but I would also be surprised if the theme didn’t weigh heavily on Jarmusch’s mind when writing the script.
More broadly, Jarmusch seems like he wants to show the minutiae of everyday life and all its beats and rhythms, as a sort of cinematic poem, perhaps akin to one written by Paterson native William Carlos Williams. The film wanders and meanders like a Williams poem, never seeking to settle on meaning or definition, simply alerting the viewer to a man’s life, what is happening to him and how these events affect him. It is interesting how a small event such as a bus breaking down, when contextualized, can have relatively significant impact, due to the scale of the world we are shown. It is generally only in poetry and music, where small incidents only affecting one person, can be shared with any level of brevity. Jarmusch does a fantastic job here of defining and maintaining such a small and focused scope, that anything that happens to Paterson has every bit as much of an effect as a bomb going off in a war movie.
Technically, what strikes me most is the colour scheme, and the unusual effect it has on the film’s mood. You could maybe call it drab, not quite bleak, like an Autumn day where the sun is constantly threatening to break through the clouds. There is an air of melancholy, but never depressingly so. This colour scheme keeps you weirdly on edge, as if at any moment the monotony could be broken by a tragic event. It also helps makes the film strangely and utterly compelling, every small aspect of the story drawing you in like it could end in a thousand different ways.
This is assisted in no small part by a magnificent performance from Adam Driver. Clearly a talented actor, his odd features and distinctive voice have already made him a commanding screen presence. Yet here even his unique physicality is toned down. He is just a guy, with a background barely hinted out, just going about his life. Paterson has a sense of humour, he is loving to his wife and amiable to co-workers and acquaintances, yet there seems to be something constantly simmering inside him, way deep down. Is he holding back for some reason? Jarmusch subtly shows flashes of a younger Paterson in an army uniform- did something happen to make him withdraw and internalize everything? Or is that simply the way he is? Jarmusch and Driver do an amazing job at maintaining subtlety, giving this quiet suburban story an air of mystery.
Even halfway through the film I didn’t expect to end up liking it half as much as I did. But when the week ended and subsequently the film with it, I was disappointed. I wanted to carry on with Paterson, Laura, Marvin and the people of the city. Does Paterson ever try and publish any of his poems, does Laura’s cupcake business take off, did Doc win that chess tournament? Jarmusch and his wonderful cast draw you in by simply showing life as it is, with a muted tone leaving us to fill in gaps and make of it what we will. The film has to potential to create in its viewer a desire to think about, and perhaps even write about, the things all around us. Something very rare, especially in a film about a bus driver.