Jim Jarmusch’s new film is important for a number of reasons, even if (or actually because) it seems so small in scale, so ordinary in scope. It’s about a man who drives a city bus as his day job and comes home to his loving girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who has her little obsessions. (We follow them over the course of one week.) They have an English bulldog Paterson walks at night, during which he stops by the corner bar and has one beer (and one beer only). He has one real passion that he pursues somewhat quietly but with intensity: poetry, and one of his inspirations is local physician/poet William Carlos Williams, known for his five-volume Paterson collection. Paterson’s writing often comes from observations as minute as, say, the matches in the house (a sample line: “We have plenty of matches in our house”), not dissimilar to that of Williams’s.
We don’t see many films like Paterson in today’s American cinema, especially this year when there have been movies rough and raw and ready to combust at any moment (Green Room, The Witch, and Nocturnal Animals, to name a few). It exudes a serenity that wasn’t quite there in Jarmusch’s iconic 1980’s films. There was the attention to life’s little moments and the strange comedic behavioral that comes from observing life as it happens, too, but there was also the streak of coolness and slight detachment. That is mostly gone here.
After seeing the film I remembered that Jarmusch is a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the rapper Method Man makes a cameo (he’s credited by his real name, Cliff Smith), as someone at a Laundromat figuring out his own sort of poetry. In Coffee and Cigarettes, RZA and GZA were featured in one of its segments, and if by some bizarro occurrence Jarmusch joins the group, he could be called OZU. It’s not that the influence of Yasujiro Ozu hasn’t been felt before in Jarmusch’s work, but here it reaches a point that feels most pure.
Jarmusch adds his own touches of comedy, though. Laura is a constant dreamer, balancing out the more low-key Paterson. She hopes to do something with herself, whether it’s becoming a country singer via instructional DVDs or making dresses and wallpaper in matching black-and-white patterns in their cozy home. Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes film the city in the same vein as Ozu, who made his Tokyo settings a specific place in time.
Paterson takes on its own poetic dimensions as we hear Driver narrate his poetry (written for the film by New York City poet Ron Padgett) while buildings and streets and passersby sometimes blend together in dissolves. Jarmusch creates a world that we feel we can live in, despite the fact that it’s not exactly the Paterson of the real world. You might forget the city has a high crime rate and is plagued by drugs. Still, it has an honesty of Jarmusch’s own making: the world as Paterson sees it. To put it another way, it’s like a much lighter and much less crazy Taxi Driver.
Throughout, Paterson observes the world around him, and we’re observing it with him, which makes the film a richer and more empathetic experience, such as with the conversations that happen on the bus (on one hand, two guys talk about sex; on the other, in a “cute” moment—maybe too cute for me—there’s a cameo with Moonrise Kingdom’s kids Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, now teens, discussing the history of anarchists in Paterson (okay, why not). I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jarmusch what repetitive serendipity he had on his hands when he cast (a very good) Adam Driver as Paterson, the bus driver for the city of Paterson.
There are moments where the drama spikes, and they stand out more because of the pacing and a quasi-Zenlike rhythm that Jarmusch creates with repetition; for example, there’s a theme of twins running through it all. Why? I’m still not sure, except it’s a nice touch. To give an idea of the heart-pounding suspense in a film like this, Paterson’s bus breaks down, and it feels like a cataclysmic event. There are a couple of other scenes that make more of a dramatic impact, which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that when one of them occurs, it rips your heart out.
This is still a comedy in certain respects, though. Many lines and little moments, such as with the dog, caught me off guard with how funny they are. By the time the film features a Japanese poet (played by the male lead in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Masatoshi Nagase), it feels like it’s one of this director’s richest films, thematically, spiritually, and, in its way, romantically—that is to say, the romance for poetry and the expression of language.