The first of many poems we encounter in the new Jim Jarmusch film involves an ode to matches. “So sober and furious and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,” goes a line of verse, lovingly describing the title character’s attachment to his favourite Ohio Blue Tips. It could just as easily be applied to a certain strand of the filmmaker’s work. Rekindling the rhythm of his trademark fringe-dwellers in movies like Dead Man and Ghost Dog, Jarmusch has delivered a consummately satisfying piece that’s also deceptively gentle—beneath the sweetly droll surface there’s a restless energy, maybe even a quiet fury, ready to catch fire at any moment.
Following the trans-continental swoon of 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch is back on relatively vintage terrain here, albeit with another artistically inclined couple comprising the aesthetic centre. A fascinatingly still Adam Driver plays Paterson, a local bus driver in the town of (you guessed it) Paterson, New Jersey, where his daily service route allows him to survey the lives of the town’s various inhabitants. And while he could be Matt the radar technician’s distant cousin, Paterson’s also a poet; a kind of everyman scribbler whose quotidian observations follow the style of his hero (and fellow Jerseyan) William Carlos Williams, his work unfurling on screen in scribbled text and through Driver’s warm voiceover.
Paterson’s life is routine and ritual: waking at daybreak to begin his shift, breaking for lunch to jot down his thoughts, and returning home to his DIY designer partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a daily cycle that concludes with him walking his bulldog Marvin to the local bar. The latter’s one of those places that seem to exist exclusively in the Jarmusch universe: managed by a veteran barkeep, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), who delights in curating the town’s history with his low-key gossip and gallery of local heroes proudly displayed on the wall behind him (to the likes of Lou Costello he adds passing tourist Iggy Pop, in a handy cross-promotional gag for Jarmusch’sGimme Danger.) It’s a pattern the film establishes early and repeats with subtle variations in rhythm, providing its own kind of formal stanzas in which Paterson may accrue his thoughts and observations.
As with the best moments in the filmmaker’s work, Paterson operates in a register that’s offhand yet casually rich, Jarmusch’s quiet, ever-observant eye trained on those who similarly watch their surroundings. We survey a mini ecosystem in low gear, from pre-teen poets loitering in alleyways to rappers in laundromats to Paterson’s amusingly disgruntled co-workers, while there are curious footnotes scattered throughout the margins—at various points Paterson encounter sets of identical twins; at another, the kids from Moonrise Kingdom cameo as wide-eyed high school anarchists (oh, to be in on the moment Jarmusch decided that was inherently amusing.) Throughout, DP Frederick Elmes, whose ability to take stock of suburban dislocation in films like Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, mixes up the director’s trademark languor with astute dissolves and evocative motion shots, while the director’s own band, SQÜRL, riffs on their no-wave origins for the ambient soundtrack.
It’s hard to fault a film so generous of spirit, in which stillness is prized over narrative incident and the simple act of observing speaks volumes more than drama or obvious characterisation. It’s the kind of film in which a bulldog (Palme Dog winner Nellie, if you’re keeping score), through virtue of the camera’s embrace, is afforded as much interior dimension as its human counterparts; where the texture of a notebook or the clippings on a wall are of equal interest to the overall aesthetic design. Even the film’s most contentious character, Laura—whose near-absurd addiction to crafting black-and-white everything initially appears played for easy laughs—is approached with what feels like a great deal of affection by Jarmusch, perhaps even standing in as a gentle parody of the director’s own predilection for “cool” (at the very least, her unabashed enthusiasm for her craft works in welcome contrast to the painfully pored-over collecting of the vampires in Lovers.)
But for all its passing delights, it’s a tense incident late in the film—prompted, seemingly, for some minimal drama to push the story a conclusion—that reveals a darker element to the film, and serves as a reminder that Jarmusch isn’t merely a purveyor of laconically cool picaresques for hip audiences. Just as Dead Man took aim at cultural genocide and The Limits of Control wrestled with systems of manipulation, there’s a heavier undertow to Paterson—that quiet fury waiting to spark, as it were. As editor Conor Bateman convincingly argued to me post-screening, the film is potentially a study of PTSD, with Paterson’s oft-glimpsed military portrait foreshadowing both his nerve-wracking takedown of a gun-wielding bar patron and his need for daily routine as a means of psychological adjustment to the “real” world.1 Or, you know, it could just all be told from the perspective of Marvin. As Paterson writes so accurately at one point, “Hmmm.”
Paterson is ultimately an affirming and joyous ramble, however, imbued with a Zen-like wonder at the marvels of the everyday and acting as another of the director’s warm tributes to the process of artistic creation. Jarmusch has never strayed far enough from his playground for this to be considered a full-circle return to the introvert outsiders of his earlier work; all the same, it’s assuredly a welcome addition to his particular world.
Originally published ay 4:3