Paterson is only the second Jim Jarmusch film I’ve ever seen. I know, I know: “What?! You’re a movie guy. How have you not seen every Jim Jarmusch movie?” I get the same reaction when I tell movie buffs that I still haven’t seen The Deer Hunter. I know he’s a staple of indie cinema but haven’t gotten around to Jarmusch yet. There’s no particular reason why he’s not at the forefront at my watchlist. Admitting this exposes my criticisms of Paterson to critiques like “Well, um actually, you just don’t understand Jarmusch.” Fortunately, I don’t have that many criticisms, even if I’m still not entirely sure what this Jarmusch dude is up to…
Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson (Kylo Ren, um, I mean Adam Sackler, er, Driver! Adam Driver! I’m sorry but he’s already done two roles that are seared into my brain, and it’s hard to distinguish the actor from the performances). Paterson is a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry that he never shares inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams, who wrote the seminal long-poem Paterson. Paterson is the ultimate create of habit; he writes about the same mundane daily routine we see over and over again. Just like everyday life, spurts of melodrama come and go without lasting consequences. A man points a gun at Paterson, but nobody’s hurt. Paterson’s bus suddenly breaks down but the passengers aren’t particularly inconvenienced. It’s a quiet life.
Paterson’s wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), stays at home pursuing random creative endeavors on a whim. Any other film about an underappreciated genius artist struggling to provide for his less-talented wife would have almost certainly focused on resentment between the spouses, but Paterson avoids that boring trope. Paterson and Laura’s appreciation and support of their artwork is surprisingly warm and fuzzy for this type of film, and it’s an endearing subversion of tired storytelling. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Paterson is just how the pleasant the entire experience is. Folks expecting hard-boiled drama about an inner-city poet drinking and smoking at his typewriter while also trying to have sex with anyone breathing will be sorely disappointed.
Another big surprise in Paterson is the poetry itself. As soon as I heard Driver start narrating poetry, I braced myself and prepared to be brutalized by two hours of the most pretentious, meaningless rhyme schemes I’d ever heard. Just like music produced specifically for films, poetry written for films never quite sounds as good as the real stuff. It was a smart move for Jarmusch to contract an actual poet, Ron Padgett, to write for Paterson; the words are weighty enough that Driver’s underscored delivery is hypnotic listening. Driver and Farahani are great actors, but Driver’s readings steal the show.
I’m at an impasse because my only major criticism of Paterson is actually a huge spoiler. Let’s just say that I don’t much care for how the final stretch of the film plays out. For a film built on avoiding cinematic tropes, ending on a much more lazy and stupid beat than usual is a gigantic swing and a huge miss. It’s also hard to ignore that—however enjoyable the journey—the film ends without much of a pay-off for the slow burn storytelling, but who knows? Is that just a Jim Jarmusch thing?
Grade = B+