Review: ‘Paterson,’ starring Adam Driver

by Andrew Parker

Quietly contemplative, down to earth, and stirring, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson might be the least pretentious film ever made about the creative process. Centering around a simple man who finds the most moving inspirations out of a seemingly banal life, Paterson proves that art is where we make it and that there’s inspiration in everything. It’s not a film that swings for the fences with its message via emotional manipulation, but rather one that spends time with a person every viewer would like to get to know better; someone they can admire. It’s not overly dramatic and only subtly comedic, but like the titular character, Paterson never tries to be something it’s not. It was one of the best films of 2016, and it’s wonderful that it has finally made its way into select Canadian markets. It probably won’t draw a dime at the box office, but this one, dear reader, is worth taking a chance on.

Adam Driver gives the finest performance of his still promising young career as a bus driver named Paterson. He lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Every day when he goes off to work he drives the #23 Paterson bus. As his bus makes its usual loop around the city, Paterson listens in to the lives, musings and observations of his passengers. Before he starts his route, he begins jotting down a poem that he’ll likely think about all morning and finish while on his lunch break. He cites as one of his biggest literary influences poet William Carlos Williams, who once wrote a volume of poetry titled Paterson. Every night he goes home to his loving Jill-of-all-trades partner (Golshifteh Farahani) and her French Bulldog, Marvin. She’s always begging him to publish some of the poetry he writes, but Paterson drags his heels for reasons we never quite figure out. He’ll take the dog for a long walk through the sometimes dodgy city streets to a local watering hole, where he’ll have a quick drink before heading home to bed and doing it all again the next day.

With Paterson, Jarmusch doesn’t seek to critique complacency in everyday life, but to celebrate the small victories of a life lived simply and devoid of complication and artifice. It’s a film about balancing happiness and artistic fulfilment. As a character, Paterson leads a normal life that most people would find comfortable, and possibly even relaxing. We know through little details that are meted out that Paterson’s life isn’t devoid of stress, but that he has found ways of coping with such things that work for him. Paterson is a likable everyman, and Driver portrays him as a wide eyed, but humble student of human nature. He’s a poetic soul, but not the kind that most motion pictures about the creative process depict. He isn’t a tortured soul, but he has felt some darkness in his life. He isn’t an academic, but he’s well read. He’s not some sort of savant or pretender. He’s just a great and simple human being with a talent for creating exceptional poetry.

Driver goes deep into the role, and Jarmusch gives the actor plenty to observe and play with. Whether he’s eavesdropping on people talking about Italian anarchists or Method Man (playing himself) freestyling while waiting for his clothes to finish up at a laundromat, Paterson pays the same amount of respectful silence while taking it all in. Driver’s character is a subtle one, but there’s always a sly smile on Paterson’s face. Here is a man who finds himself energized simply by being alive and living in the present.

I know how inherently uncinematic all of this sounds, and Jarmusch uses how audiences have been conditioned to watch films to add a surprising amount of tension. Paterson’s life is so normal and unassuming, the most viewers are expecting something intense to befall the character at any given moment. Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes purposefully frame some scenes in ways that are meant to play with how we view films. The film unfolds over the course of a carefully marked out week, and as a viewers we think that this will serve a purpose and that everything will be a detail that has to be looped back to in our minds. When Paterson leaves his dog unattended outside the local bar, we worry it won’t be there when he returns. When Paterson seems lost in a daydream while driving the bus, we fear that someone might dart out in front of him. When the bus breaks down one day, we fear that the problem could put Paterson and his passengers in danger. When a car full of wannabe thugs stops him while out for his evening walk to mess with him, we hope they don’t come back to visit Paterson on another day. It spoils nothing to say that something does happen, but it’s dealt with quickly and thankfully without tragedy. That’s as dramatic as it gets, but Jarmusch and his crew have found a way to make something this entrancing also feel unpredictable.

I cynically say that Paterson won’t draw a dime at the box office, despite the presence of an underrated rising star like Driver in the lead, because it’s not the kind of film that people line up around the block to see, even in an arthouse setting. But if ever there was a film that was so beautiful and easygoing that I wanted to live in every frame, Paterson would be that movie. It’s a change of pace for Jarmusch, who usually makes his films with a darker sensibility and a healthier dose of skepticism. In an age where everyday life is scary, it’s nice to be reminded of how beautiful it can be if you look around with open eyes and an open heart.

Paterson opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, February 10. It expands to other Canadian cities throughout the winter and spring.

Check out the trailer for Paterson:

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