The biggest thing you need to know about Paterson, the latest from writer/director Jim Jarmusch, is that absolutely nothing of consequence happens in the movie. For that reason, many people will hate it or not even give it a shot, which is their prerogative.
But for those willing to give in to its seemingly banal rhythms, it is a rich character study in a film era that rarely allows such meditation. Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver who happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey, who has a penchant for writing poetry. He lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), an aspiring country music singer with an affinity for black and white designs, baking cupcakes, and her ornery English bulldog, Marvin.
Jarmusch takes us through a week in their thoroughly ordinary lives, one in which Paterson rises early each morning to drive his route, writes new poetry verses, eavesdrops on his passengers, and ends each day by going to his neighborhood bar to enjoy a beer and talk with the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Laura spends her days painting almost everything in their small apartment, doting on Paterson when he returns home, and gently pining for a bigger life.
At first, the lack of any significant plot developments is strange. But each passing day is shown to be just a little different than the one before it, and the film soon becomes pleasurable in an almost ineffable way. We get to know Paterson, Laura, Marvin, and other characters in such a pure and complete manner that they feel like good friends by the end of the film.
Also, what might seem like repetitive elements, including Paterson’s poetry, Laura’s seemingly endless black-and-white design variations, and the appearance of multiple sets of twins, are instead opportunities to dig deeper into the psyches and personalities of the main characters. They may not actually do anything, but they have a tremendous amount going on in their internal lives.
You could compare the film to poetry itself. Paterson’s verses are oddly matter-of-fact at times, almost as if he’s just writing down what he’s observing. But both the film and his poetry gain depth as the story goes along, to the point that you could almost convince yourself that his prose is as good as that of his hero, Paterson native William Carlos Williams.
Driver, like his character, seems to do nothing to make the role special, and yet he’s utterly compelling in it. Whether it’s his somewhat un-cinematic face, his subtle reactions, or his calm but confident demeanor, he is in control the entire film. Farahani complements him well with her bright and effortless personality.
Paterson is a film that will sneak up on you with its impact. It is graceful and quiet, but its characters will stay with you longer than most other movies.