Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson represents a skewing of the cool that’s been synonymous with the filmmaker for almost four decades. Jarmusch’s films have always felt like loft spaces, the motion-picture equivalent of a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, with icons, starving artists, and aficionados all rubbing elbows while jockeying for the only bathroom on the entire floor. His latest is every bit as informed by the artistic impulses and wandering souls that inform the rest of his oeuvre, but the film concerns the humbler creative expressions of everyday life, where one creates art not for notoriety or superiority, but for the simple pleasure of making it.
The title refers both to the film’s New Jersey setting and its protagonist (Adam Driver), a bus driver who writes poetry in his off time. Paterson the city is gradually sketched in over the course of the driver’s daily grind: The diversity of bus passengers stands in for the larger population, and conversations between locals dredge up historical figures who called the town home, from falsely imprisoned boxer Hurricane Carter to vaudeville icon Lou Costello. Yet despite its population density and plethora of well-known names who either hailed from or passed through its limits, Paterson here exudes the feel of a small town, quaintly rendered in Jarmusch’s slice-of-life direction.
The city’s normalcy informs Paterson the man, to the extent that even his friends wonder if his name is his own or if he simply took to calling himself after the town. Paterson is that most rare of characters: a thoroughly ordinary man whose relatability never feels calculated or projected-upon by the filmmakers. Jarmusch’s barebones script makes no effort to place any greater meaning on the character, but it’s Driver’s performance that keeps the man grounded. The actor plays him as timid but friendly, not eager to start conversations but perfectly happy to engage in any offered to him. Driver also counters the usual on-screen solemnity of working drudgery, betraying flashes of Paterson’s contentment with his job in the small smiles that cross the driver’s face as he overhears his passengers’ random, varied chats.
Paterson’s enjoyment of his job figures into the prominent role that his daily routine plays in the film’s structure. Time-lapse shots of the driver’s watch mix with superimpositions of figures roaming in an out of his bus to communicate his daily route, and each afternoon and evening contains certain recurring echoes, such as Paterson grabbing the mail as he reaches home and straightening the mailbox that tilts back over each day, or heading down to the local bar while walking his dog to grab a beer.
That Paterson’s smiles communicate his satisfaction with this life even as he regularly demonstrates his artistic side is almost radical, because routine is regularly pilloried in cinema, held up as proof of a life wasted. This can be attributed to the fact that films are usually made by the type of people who chafe at nine-to-five jobs and who long for a life of unpredictability. Paterson depicts routine as neither good nor bad, just a fact of life for the vast majority of the world’s population, and something that neither precludes nor obstructs happiness. Simply by respecting its character’s working life, Jarmusch exposes the arrogance and presumption that defines so many cinematic representations of any kind of normal labor.
Because he finds worth as a bus driver, Paterson doesn’t rely on his poetry to extricate him from a dreary life; he uses his art, like so many people, as a means of enlivening an already happy existence. The work of William Carlos Williams, who wrote an epic poem called Paterson, factors heavily into the character’s own verse, which eschews rhyme and strict structure in favor of honest observation. One poem, for example, breaks down in exacting detail the graphic design of a matchbox, from the megaphone shape of the company font to the color of the match heads. Paterson includes semi-confessions in his work, reaffirming his love for his wife while admitting that he sometimes looks at other women. His love for simple, direct verse is understood in a scene where he meets a young girl by his bus depot and is enthused to learn she also writes poetry. When she reads him her poem about the Great Falls on the Passaic River, her basic but clear writing strikes him so deeply that he cannot help but betray a hint of jealousy along with his warm admiration.
This contented, appreciative approach to creativity is also felt among the supporting characters. Paterson’s wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), loves to paint black-and-white circles on everything in their house, and her flighty tendencies extend to spontaneous hobbies (playing guitar) and experimental cooking (a pie made of cheddar and Brussels sprouts that Paterson can only consume with a full glass of water per bite). Farahani never portrays Laura’s scattered self-expression as precious or grating; both she and Jarmusch regard the character’s positivity only with the utmost affection.
Random figures glimpsed throughout the film, such as an amateur rapper (Method Man) practicing his flow as his laundry dries, show the commonality of people using creativity to help pass the time. Perhaps the only person who actively relies on their art to alleviate their unhappiness is Everett (William Jackson Harper), the actor who possessively attempts to reunite with his ex, Marie (Chasten Harmon). Everett finds a measure of comfort in the unsettling intensity of his public demonstrations of longing, gleaning succor from the attention it brings him even as he remains romantically frustrated.
Paterson’s sunny aesthetic and disposition marks a stylistic departure for Jarmusch, significantly removed from the arty cool of his earlier work. Yet here is a film with the confidence to be as blissfully contented as its protagonist, to sketch out a vision of everyday life without feeling the need to justify it with narrative or thematic ambitions. What could be cooler than that?