The Films of 2016: Paterson
The title of Jim Jarmusch's new film Paterson refers to the last name of the main character, a bus driver in his early thirties played by Adam Driver. He's a meditative type, personable but wary, his eyes always registering the people and things around him. He has a poet's eye, and a poet's soul; he spends his lunch break writing down the poems that he composes in his head while he drives. Paterson is also the city where he lives and works, and if the film is primarily a character study it doubles as a tribute to the modest beauty of this particular place and the people who make their lives there. Furthermore, Paterson shares its title with a book by the mid-century poet William Carlos Williams, who is in effect one of the patron saints of the bus driver, the city, and Jarmusch himself, insofar as the latter shares Williams' penchant for observing the stuff of the everyday.
It's an extraordinarily mellow film even by Jarmusch's standards. Set over the course of a week, Paterson the film follows Paterson the man's gentle, humorously repetitive routines, the former adopting the same ruminative tone that the latter takes to the world around him. Like William Carlos Williams, who worked as a doctor when he wasn't writing poetry, Paterson is a figure of the artist as working man, at one with the city and its quirky, homely denizens. During the day he eavesdrops on the conversations of his passengers as they talk about women, politics, Halloween costumes, and he spends his evenings at the corner bar, mostly sitting in silence as the other regulars go about their business arguing, flirting, bemoaning their woes, playing chess to the sounds of Willie West on the jukebox. He watches and listens, and so does the film. (Driver's foil is the bewitching Golshifteh Farahani as Paterson's live-in girlfriend Laura, whose creative energies are as whimsical and impulsive as his are disciplined and regular.)
Paterson's lightness of touch seems to mark a shift in the sensibility of Jarmusch, a filmmaker usually given to broader characterization and more florid dialogue. It may be that Jarmusch is trying to channel the plain-spokenness and modesty of his setting and its people. But then again this same lightness of touch was there all the way at the beginning of Jarmusch's career, in the sublime Stranger Than Paradise (1985). Paterson makes nearly all of Jarmusch's films that have come in between, wonderful as many of them are, feel arch and gimmicky by comparison. In it, Jarmusch displays the confidence and simplicity of a master filmmaker. He was granted that status by the film community some years ago, perhaps prematurely. With Paterson he shows that he deserves it.