Sometimes the minutiae of everyday life can be every bit as compelling as a tangled plot with hundreds of moving parts, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a perfect example. This comfortable, cosy film invites you to sink into its quiet rhythms right from the off, focusing on a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver, excellent), a bus driver/poet in Paterson, New Jersey. Each day opens on a ceiling shot of Paterson peacefully waking up next to his beautiful wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). They have breakfast together before Paterson heads off to work and Laura stays home to work on one of her many creative pursuits: art, music, baking.
As Paterson drives the bus around the city, he quietly observes the passengers and eavesdrops in on their conversations, whether it be two teenage anarchists (Moonrise Kingdom’s Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) bemoaning the lack of likeminded people in the city or a couple of construction workers trading stories about their prowess – or lack thereof – with the opposite sex. These scenes are essentially just a series of extended vignettes but also help convey Paterson’s watchfulness as he finds inspiration for his art in these kinds of everyday exchanges.
On his lunch break, Paterson tucks into a lovingly packed lunch by a waterfall and fills a notebook with his verse. Written by Ron Padget, the poetry simplicity and lack of pretension makes it a perfect and believable fit for Paterson. If it were too good, the film wouldn’t be plausible; if it were terrible, it would feel like unintentional comedy, but Padget and Jarmusch find the right level. As Driver thoughtfully delivers the verse in voiceover, crafting the words as he goes, we see the words themselves overlay the screen in a scribbly handwritten font, as images of his life fade in around each other.
In the evening, Paterson and Laura have dinner together before Paterson takes their English bulldog, Marvin, out for a walk, stopping in at the local bar for a couple of beers on the way. He chats with the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka), and occasionally mingles with other regulars, like heartbroken Everett (William Jackson Harper) and his unrequited love Marie (Chasten Harmon). All the while, Paterson’s quietly absorbing the world around him as fuel for his poetry; whether it be the sight of a glass of beer or the shape of the lettering on his favourite matchboxes, it all makes its way into his art, however direct it might seem.
Throughout all of this, there is no antagonist, no tension, nothing going wrong. At times it feels like Jarmusch plays with expectations, setting things up that in other movies would lead to confrontation or drama and then letting them play out peacefully. The first time we see Paterson stop in at the bar, it seems like maybe he’s not supposed to, like he’s trying to get a few minutes away from Laura. But as the week progresses, it becomes clear that it’s just his routine and she likes the slight whiff of beer on him when he gets home at night. When she purchases an expensive guitar to try to fulfil one of her many dreams – being a country singer – there’s no financial drama; Paterson is just genuinely supportive. The depiction of their relationship is one of the film’s biggest joys, with Jarmusch and his actors establishing their love through the smallest of touches, be it a gentle morning kiss or a photo in a lunchbox.
When it comes to his poetry, Laura tries to encourage Paterson to do something with his work, even if it’s only make a few photocopies. But Paterson has no desire to pursue a career, no ambition to become a world famous poet. He just enjoys it, which hits at the central themes of Jarmusch’s film: the idea of art for art’s sake, the pleasure that can be found in the creative process, the hidden depths of ordinary people and the small wonders of an ordinary life. This is the kind of minor masterpiece that’s so wonderful that you just have a grin on your face for the entire duration; so engrossing that you want to spend more time in its world; so utterly charming that you wish you could hang out with the characters just a little bit longer.