REVIEW: Paterson [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: December 28th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Bleecker Street Media / Amazon Studios
Director(s): Jim Jarmusch
Writer(s): Jim Jarmusch

“Without love, what reason is there for anything?”

Doctor William Carlos Williams includes a line inside his epic poem “Paterson” that states: “no ideas but in things.” When writer/director Jim Jarmusch was asked what this meant, he replied: “that you start with the things around you and the details of daily life and you find beauty and resonance in them—poetry grows out of that.” By those terms poetry is forever all around us in the tiny details of life that too many let pass them by without a second thought. There’s poetry in the weird coincidences of life, the unexplainable patterns of circuitous thought and sight, and the quiet moments that define us deeper than bombastic action. Not everyone is famous, but each is integrally important. We’re all artists expressing ourselves, seen or not.

We become our own canvas, the results from pen, paintbrush, and voice merely physical manifestations of what’s intrinsically bonded in our DNA. Our art is expressed in our expressive nature, the way we carry ourselves, our empathetic compassion, our love, and maybe most especially our failings. To tell our story isn’t to hone in on check-stops towards greatness or luck, but instead the mundane minutes seemingly possessed by nothing of worth. We can’t know who Paterson (Adam Driver) from Paterson, New Jersey is by seeing him rise to the stratosphere of success or depths of despair. His identity only shines through the normal day-to-day—the moments when he doesn’t know he’s being watched. It’s these instances where he simply is without expectation or performance tinting reality’s beauty.

No words spoken by stranger or friend are therefore more important than, “Are you okay?” This question proves that someone is watching—someone cares. Even if it’s uttered in a hypothetical nature, it provides the room for a release. Sometimes the question arrives when you are okay, a look of contemplation perhaps misinterpreted as suffering. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful or meaningful. This truth is more or less what gives Jarmusch’s aptly named Paterson it’s dramatic propulsion if you could ever say something this quiet and slow is dramatic. We’re literally watching seven days in a man’s life—seven days of routine slightly altered to witness what is real and what is measured. Our lives may not be glamorous, but they define us.

Monday arrives with Paterson and wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) in bed. His internal clock awakens him at 6:15am, he kisses her shoulder, and she relays her latest dream. He walks to work, composing his latest poem before the day’s shift begins. Paterson drives a New Jersey metro bus, a position allowing him to eavesdrop on conversations that bring smiles to his face—each an emotionally charged, out-of-context exchange of inspiration. He continues to write at lunch (the words superimposed onscreen) before returning to work, heading home, eating dinner (avoiding the latest household item painted with black squiggles or circles by Laura), walking Marvin the bulldog, and grabbing a quick drink at Doc’s (Barry Shabaka Henley) bar. Tuesday follows and so forth, small deviations causing ripples of varying degree.

Paterson’s dream is internal, his poetry a personal outlet of expression. Laura’s aspirations are loud, hopeful, and exciting whether owning a cupcakery or becoming a country singer. She puts her touch on the world while he marks a secret notebook for his eyes only. One isn’t right, the other wrong. One isn’t better, the other worse. They simply both have their way of getting through the daily grind that makes them happy enough to come together for an embrace before starting over again. They’re living and discovering, beauty something to be augmented by one and immortalized by the other. They’re experiencing the life around them too: a wonderful serendipitous wonderland of surprises. Jarmusch supplies a subtly eccentric caricature of a setting, its details skewed and warped for interpretation.

Twins run rampant. Two young anarchists remind us of Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom‘s child leads (it is Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman). The idea that English bulldogs are rare enough to be stolen is delivered yet Paterson continues tying Marvin outside Doc’s bar without incident. A man doing laundry is heard working on poetry of his own (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and poetry in general seems to be on everyone’s mind alongside William Carlos Williams and other artists with a connection to the titular city (including Iggy Pop, the subject of Jarmusch’s other 2016 release Gimme Danger). And love prevails via struggle (Doc and his wife), stability (Paterson and Laura’s introspection), and volatility (William Jackson Harper‘s Everett refusing to accept Chasten Harmon‘s Marie no longer wants him).

The days move on. Some hold their feelings inside and others can’t wait to air them like Rizwan Manji‘s Donny, Paterson’s supervisor. Poetry is read and destroyed. Acting is wielded as weapon and escape. Painting becomes catharsis. And even an old time black and white film enters to remind us about art’s longevity. Tragedy arrives and is endured. Hope succeeds and fails in equal measure with routine being broken ever so slightly until equilibrium returns. There’s so much happening and yet nothing happens that can’t be explained as more than a tiny twitch with no discernable impact. There’s no menace (save a drawn gun) and therefore little conflict that isn’t created by the mind and evaporated soon after. Everyone moves forward, a new day always on the horizon.

Jarmusch’s actors deliver performances with the slightest bit of artifice, lending a fantastical air of heightened reality despite staying grounded in the everyday. His films are known for this aesthetic, perfectly suited to his dialogue-heavy revelations of self via random conversations and off-kilter interactions. It’s a style Driver appears born to deliver, his soft awkwardness lending an authenticity to his laughter despite its catalyst so carefully manipulated through repetition and calm surrealism. Life is made into art and art into life as Paterson traverses the juxtaposition of two selves. It’s Paterson the bus driver versus Paterson the poet—one concrete, the other abstract. Both are true and both fleeting. Paterson is ultimately Paterson like you are you, the details ever-changing on the surface of your uniquely built soul.

[1] Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in PATERSON Credit: Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
[2] Cliff Smith in PATERSON Credit: Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
[3] William Jackson Harper and Chasten Harmon in PATERSON Credit: Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

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