Plays at Cinematheque Mar. 29 to Apr. 9

Iconic indie film pioneer Jim Jarmusch’s newest feature, Paterson, showcases the director at his best. 

These days, Jarmusch often works in one of two overlapping modes: a more eccentric approach focused on freaky protagonists, evocative of his No Wave roots (2013’s tumultuous vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive) and a contemplative, mature style more focused on character than plot (2005’s Broken Flowers). While Paterson is firmly in the latter camp, it’s a lovely reminder that even at his wildest, Jarmusch’s focus has always been humanity and empathy.

Paterson stars Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Paterson, a 30-something bus driver in the city of Paterson, N.J. With a “week in the life” structure, the film follows Paterson through his mostly unwavering daily routine. 

He awakes around 6:30 every morning alongside his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and bulldog Martin. He drives the bus and scribbles poetry in a notebook on his breaks. After work and dinner, he walks Martin and grabs a beer at the local pub. Laura insists that he should make copies of his poetry, reassuring him that he’s talented, but Paterson is writing only for himself.

Driver, who came to prominence playing despicable and self-involved characters, goes against type by presenting Paterson as a likable, stand-up guy. He keeps to himself, but he’ll gladly give the time of day to anyone who asks. He’s kind and respectful to everyone. 

His poetry reveals an inner life that isn’t immediately evident on the surface, but it’s never anything as trite as suggesting a hidden, tortured soul. Wisely, Paterson reminds us that even the most unassuming people contain a complex multitude of emotions. It further cements Driver as one of the most interesting actors currently working.

Like Paterson and his poetry, there’s a feeling that Jarmusch would be perfectly happy if nobody but him ever saw Paterson. Make no mistake: that’s a compliment. The film glides by comfortably but confidently, content to do whatever it feels like, since it doesn’t need to bend over backwards to impress its audience. It never gives in to the pressure to manufacture drama. This gives it the room to breathe, to live a little in ways many movies don’t.

That breathing room results in little delights that make the movie glow in a way others don’t. Simple things, like the fact that when the people around Paterson say something funny, he laughs to himself. That might not seem like a big deal, until you consider how rarely one sees characters onscreen laughing, or regarding the world around them with any degree of awareness beyond their own utility as vehicles for plot.

The life and comfort the approach engenders is important thematically as well as stylistically, since Paterson is primarily about the creative process. Jarmusch brilliantly challenges the hackneyed ways that process is usually depicted in fiction. He understands that the inspiration for art doesn’t often come from emotional turmoil, but from the quiet time that allows space for thought. 

Paterson knows that creative people aren’t all eccentric tortured souls. They’re your bus driver, the kid on the sidewalk or the stranger in the laundromat.

Published in Volume 71, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 23, 2017)

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