A whimsical essay into the ordinariness of human existence
Jim Jarmusch films can be challenging and Paterson (2016) is no exception. Audiences who are accustomed to plot or character-driven stories will find themselves grappling instead with a mood in search of a reason. Without a genre label to help, we must work through an exploratory essay into the ordinariness of human existence elevated occasionally by the creative impulse to write poetry. If it sounds cerebral, then it’s a Jarmusch film.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in Paterson, USA. If that sounds odd, then it matches this whimsical story based on the typical week of a nondescript transport worker who lives not a life but a routine. His unchanging beige existence is in bold relief to his beautiful Iranian-born wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who is artistically creative and continually reshaping her goals. Their lovable and irascible bulldog Marvin is the story’s primary source of humour. Paterson drifts into writing poems throughout his day, composing lines in his head, and sometimes his silken words appear as on-screen text framed by banality like an urban bus window. His free-flowing verses are a contrast to his symmetrical and ordered life. While Laura thinks they should be shared with the world, he is bashful about them because the sentences do not rhyme. The pattern of his days is always the same, punctuated by what happens to others rather than what happens to him. Quirky characters create capsule sketches that represent the mundanity of living: a woe-riddled supervisor, a broken romance, a curious Japanese tourist, overheard passenger conversations, and a broken down bus – all part of a quiet existential stream notable only for its inconsequence.
Narrative turning points work like signposts that tell us that something significant is about to occur in a story, but there are none here. Each time it appears possible that the story might progress in some interesting new direction nothing happens, perhaps to reflect how Paterson lives his life. There are layers of unreality across many scenes and the dialogue often feels as if it is being delivered at a script reading: clear diction, perfect rhythm, without emotion. This slight air of inauthenticity forms a backdrop for the sincerity and lyricism present in Paterson’s poetry. It may or may not be good poetry; that is not the point. It is about contrasting layers of reality and they are evident elsewhere, always with the same effect. When a small girl who also writes poetry says “Cool. My bus driver is a poet” we feel like responding: “well, why not?”; creativity hides everywhere.
Not everyone will stay with this film because of its minimalist pace, deadpan humour, prolonged silences, understated acting and noticeably sparse music to lift the emotional tone. It is devoid of regular cinematic artifice and feels like we have momentarily glimpsed into the inner space of a true gentle soul and can walk away the better for it.