Cinema has always been the perfect medium for capturing the quiet voices of quiet lives. As the camera follows characters around, we discover so much about their internal world we never would from excessive dialogue, by seeing how they move through their lives and how they interact with others. It’s what is said between the lines that matters most, and this seems particularly pertinent with Jim Jarmusch’s latest film ‘Paterson’, a film about a quiet man in a quiet life who finds his voice through poetry bursting with the unsaid.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey. Every day, he leaves the little house he shares with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog Monty, and drives his route, taking in the conversations of people he meets and carries. All the while, he keeps his notebook at hand where he writes poetry inspired by the tiny details he comes across in his day. The film follows a week in Paterson’s life, taking the time to piece this simple life together piece by piece, exquisite detail by exquisite detail.
Paterson’s greatest poetic inspiration is the Beat poet William Carlos Williams (who came from Paterson and named one of his poetry collections after the suburb), and that quality of capturing the simplicity of life that permeates throughout the work of the Beat Generation likewise permeates the tapestry of Jarmusch’s film. His erudite, gorgeously simple screenplay concerns itself with the most basic of narratives and without adhering to any set rules of storytelling. There are no antagonists to speak of, few moments of intense drama. Much like a Kerouac novel, it ends up being a collection of characters existing in a landscape, the film revelling in their language and idiosyncrasies. At the heart of it is Paterson himself, the ultimate observer, one who sits quietly and allows things to happen around him, capturing them with the power of his pen. He’s private, careful and considered, waking at the same time every day and sticking to the same routine, a perfect counterpoint to the vivacious, creative and spontaneous Laura. Their differences provide solace for each other, him taking in her energy and her resting on his stability.
In lesser hands, a film like ‘Paterson’ would have been a trial, but Jarmusch turns it into a gentle joy. There’s so much humour in the telling, Jarmusch filling the film with incongruous details that need no context nor explanation. They’re just wonderful coincidences to be enjoyed. Frederick Elmes’ cinematography is rich and poetic, the images moved sprightly along by Affonso Gonçalves’ gentle editing. In fact, the word "gentle" applies endlessly to ‘Paterson’, a film that prefers (like its protagonist) to take its time and not make a fuss. Its final act does deliver a moment of quiet tragedy, but deals with it in a way that balances melancholy and hopefulness that makes your heart both ache and sing at the same time.
Jarmusch has assembled a joyous ensemble of actors to bring sleepy Paterson to life, the richest of which is Adam Driver’s central performance. Driver has always been wonderful to watch, but Paterson is a breakout character for him, a wonderfully detailed and heartfelt performance that shows a tenderness to him as an actor that we haven’t seen yet. There is always a sense of something bubbling inside Paterson waiting to get out, but Driver plays that as possibility rather than angst. You get the sense it will come when it does, and that the character knows this deep down. There's so much in Driver’s performance (much like the film) that we’re never shown, but that works so much to its advantage. He is beautifully complemented by Golshifteh Farahani’s free-spirited, spontaneous Laura, bursting with energy and honesty. The camera loves her, and in turn she offers so much back, a giddy threat of "anything can happen" in a film and a world built around routine. It’s easy to see why Paterson is so enamoured of her, and hard not to be as well. The unexpected star of the film though is their dog Marvin (played by a bulldog named Nellie). He almost steals the entire film, acting almost as Paterson’s nemesis, with the most exquisite personality and comic timing. It’s the best performance by an animal in a film since the cat(s) in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’.
In lesser hands, a film like ‘Paterson’ would have been a trial, but Jarmusch turns it into a gentle joy.
When I was at uni, I spent many, many months researching and falling in love with the honesty, wit and poetry of the Beat Generation, and whenever I return to their writing, I feel an enormous sense of comfort, like reuniting with an old friend. I had that same response to ‘Paterson’, and even though my love for this film is inevitably linked with my love for the writings that inspired it, I also fell for its gentle storytelling and its beautiful performances. This is an exquisite little gem of a film, one that captures the simplicity and oddness of life in a way that is so uniquely cinematic. As the year starts wrapping up, Jim Jarmusch’s latest little classic is sitting comfortably as one of my favourite films of the year.