Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a special kind of inspirational film. While many movies of the same class motivate you to live a better life; take care of the people you love; or have appreciation for what you have, Paterson is a story that calls to everyone’s inner artist and begs them to let that side of them out. It’s a powerful piece of work that amounts to not just one of the greatest titles of Jarmusch’s career, but one of the best films of 2016.
Based on an original screenplay by Jarmusch, Paterson is a name shared by both the film’s lead and its setting, centering on a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) as he lives out a literal week-in-the-life in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Inspired by his hero William Carlos Williams, Paterson is a poet in his spare time, and while he constantly hesitates sharing his work – despite insistence from his live-in-girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) — it is clearly what drives him through the repetitive nature of his day-to-day existence. He’s constantly scribbling in a little book kept in his pocket, inspired to write by his love for Laura and the beautiful town in which he lives, though through the events of the film he’s forced to face the question of what it means to express himself as an artist and the vitality of revealing his passion to the world.
Many fans of Jim Jarmusch’s body of work will find a lot of familiar themes and ideas inPaterson, from the influence of poetry to twins to (funny enough) repetition — but it doesn’t in any way feel like a greatest hits album. Instead, it feels almost like a culmination, and, in so being, a call to arms for artists everywhere. The movie is as much about repression as it is about expression, pulling into focus the consequences of a life without that essential freedom, and by extension feels very much like a beautiful articulation of who Jarmusch is as an artist himself.
In the film, this is best illustrated through the arcs of both Paterson and Laura: both artists, but also very different in their approach to their work. As we see each day throughout the week-long narrative, Paterson’s poetry and his everyday life are two things that are kept mutually exclusive — his pen operating in moments of solitude, but no part of the conversation as he visits his favorite watering hole and makes small-talk with the chess-loving bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley) and a pair of lovers on the outs (Chasten Harmon and William Jackson Harper).
In contrast, Laura’s day is spent fully immersed in her art, painting her favorite black and white patterns wherever she can, and fully indulging every exciting impulse she comes across — including baking specialty cupcakes and dreams of becoming a guitar-playing country music star. She’s flighty in her pursuits, but commits herself fully to them, and is taken through a fascinating arc in the story as a result, right alongside Paterson.
These two very different characters present special and significant challenges to the actors playing them, but both Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani do magnificent work bringing Paterson and Laura to life in vibrant and fascinating ways. In the case of the former, an extension of Paterson’s stifled artistic expression is that he’s also a stoic, which presents its own issues as far as connecting with him as a protagonist. That being said, it’s a roadblock Driver overcomes with a divine subtlety in his performance — as while he may demonstrate it to the world, you can sense his zeal and passion physically as he takes in the world around him and filters it into his poetry. Laura is on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, as her ambitiousness and capriciousness earn a certain level of contempt — particularly when she gets her boyfriend to pay for a specialty guitar with his money from driving the city bus. But not only does Jim Jarmusch’s script provide redemption, Farahani plays her with such spritely and charismatic energy that you not only understand Paterson’s feelings for Laura, but ultimately root for her as well. These are roles that demanded a great deal, but they are perfectly cast.
Of course, Jim Jarmusch has always been as great a director as he is a writer, and with his lens he exposes what it was that so greatly inspired William Carlos Williams in the creation of his most famous epic poem. This includes not only the stunning photography of The Great Falls of the Passaic River, which Paterson regularly uses as a backdrop in his writing time, but even just in the poetry-narrated montages as the protagonist drives his bus around the small New Jersey city. It’s methodical, specific, and beautiful filmmaking, and while it admittedly requires a certain level of patience on behalf of the audience, Paterson really is one of the writer/director’s great triumphs.
One could argue that the film flirts with pretension, and needs an audience with an open-mind to more poetic expression – but those who are game will be treated to what is a tremendous piece of art about the importance of art, and within that it’s universal. Like most Jim Jarmusch films, it will likely get totally overlooked by mainstream audiences; but also like most Jim Jarmusch films, it’s absolutely worth hunting down for any passionate cinephile.