Director Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Nellie
Released 25th November 2016
From the outside, Paterson New Jersey may look unassuming town, but it has a couple of claims to fame. Its most famous resident was comedian Lou Costello – there’s a park dedicated to him – and it’s also the subject of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams. Now it has a third. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, the story of a man who doesn’t just share his name with the town he lives in, but is similarly ordinary. Or, at least, appears to be.
Whether Paterson (Adam Driver) is his first name or surname we never discover, but he’s a bus driver in the town of the same name, writing poetry in his spare time. At home, he lives with his adoring wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who dreams of making her fortune, perhaps with a cup cake business, or perhaps by becoming a country singer. The other resident is her dog, Marvin (Nellie), who hates Paterson with a passion. As we experience a week in his life, we follow his daily routine at work and at home, meet his friends, acquaintances and strangers, listen to his poetry and learn more about him. More than he would ever want us to know.
Capturing the rhythms of everyday life, the film draws us into the small details – Paterson’s daily chat with his supervisor before setting out on his route, the way he eavesdrops on his passengers, taking inspiration from them and writing poems in his secret book during breaks. Away from work, there’s his evening walk with Marvin which always ends at the same bar where he meets the same people, there’s his wife’s unusual tastes in décor and even more unusual cookery. It’s the same every day, and yet it’s never the same because something different always happens, however small and however low key.
But rhythms are there to be disrupted, so Jarmusch throws in the unexpected, events that on the grand scale of things are still comparatively small, but larger than the minutiae we’ve seen so far. The bus breaks down. And one of his friends at the bar threatens to shoot himself after his girlfriend dumps him. Paterson deals with both situations with a quiet authority, one that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such an unassuming man. There’s a reason for that, one that’s kept tucked away in the bedroom at home. The photograph of him in a Marines uniform, with a chest full of medals. What he might have seen or experienced in those days we never know, but now he embraces what seems to be ordinary and embellishes it with his poetry.
The film describes itself as a comedy and, while it might not sound like one, that’s exactly what it is. A comedy of most the delicate kind, which makes you smile and gives you the giggles. Some of the best humour comes from Paterson’s relationship with the malevolent Marvin, who is responsible for a joyous running gag. Even better is that Paterson never works it out.
There’s little dramatic tension and even less conflict, with the exception of Marvin’s glowering resentment, but the film casts a spell of minute observations, understated humour and performances to die for. He may be best known as Kylo Ren, but Adam Driver is nothing short of perfection as the would-be poet, a creature of habit with a deeply buried backstory. Bulldog Nellie, aka Marvin, comes close to being a scene stealer and waddled off with the Palm Dog at Cannes, although sadly it was an posthumous award.
Beautifully observed, deceptively simple and crammed with loving little details, Paterson is an unassuming gem. One of Jarmusch’s most quoted lines is that “the beauty of life is in the small details, not in big events.” It’s exactly what the film is all about – especially when, for the people involved, they aren’t small at all.