‘Paterson’ is lighthearted rumination on beauty in life’s banality

Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street/Courtesy
"Paterson" | Bleecker Street Media/Amazon Studios
Grade: A

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Toward the beginning of “Paterson,” there is a sequence in which the film’s protagonist nonchalantly analyzes a box of matches. He merely glances at the design of the casing while eating cereal before constructing an introspective poem on his walk to work. This is a movie about a public transportation worker who writes poetry in Paterson, New Jersey, and though it sounds utterly unnecessary, the film is undoubtedly one of the best released in the past year.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson” chronicles a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver who encounters the eclectic, yet simple, people in his community and contemplates the intricacies of their lives and his own through the medium of poetry. The film is unabashedly ‘ordinary’ in its setting, plot and overall presentation — a testament to Jarmusch’s career of producing arthouse films — but the superficially unimaginative environment actually amplifies the director’s underlying thematic machinations.

“Paterson” is a film which heralds the idea of restraint, and this begins and ends with Adam Driver’s incredible portrayal of the quintessential layman. Driver shows no signs of cognizant acting but rather performs as though he were unknowingly being filmed by a crew while moonlighting as a bus driver. The dialogue is sparse and colloquial. The cast, apart from Driver, consists of five more principal actors and a handful of extras. The movie is essentially devoid of computer-generated imagery or exaggerated special effects aside from the occasional cinematic optical illusion — such as forced perspective. This film defines the immersive effect minimalism can have on an audience.

At every turn, Jarmusch pushes back against the modern staples of cinema in an effort to unearth a deeper meaning out of seemingly ‘typical’ events. Without the advancements of contemporary artistic expression, what is the artist left with? Make no mistake, this is independent filmmaking at its finest — the embodiment of the age-old adage, “quality not quantity.”

The film’s simplicity can definitely be jarring and understandably confounding in its execution. Had it not been for the presence of known actors and actresses in the production, “Paterson” could easily pass for a documentary. In fact, the film holds no readily distinguishable narrative, but rather supplants the traditional storyline for one of cause-and-effect, which is where Jarmusch derives the most significant emotional impact of Paterson’s seven-day journey. For every action Driver’s character takes, the universe he finds himself in presents a varying response. If Paterson asks his colleague about his day on Monday, the man more easily opens up to Paterson on Wednesday and so on and so forth. Jarmusch fashions a film wholly reliant on interaction, communication and relationships in this manner — a movingly human touch not predominantly featured in film today.

The conversations and shared experiences Paterson involves himself in, especially those with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), are electric in the duo’s earnest chemistry with one another. No one character, not even Paterson himself, holds the spotlight for too long, and each and every actor has his or her own moment to shine within the context of the film. The film is powerfully intimate in its weaving of a story. His life is banal, but this banality is the source of his inspiration.

Paterson has a fairly strict routine that he ever rarely deviates from. He works, goes home, eats dinner and goes to the bar — said routine might evoke fears of boredom or familiarity, but the film elects to comment on how routine can have a fundamental sway on one’s own perception.

Jarmusch intertwines existential bouts of identity with an importance on how these trivial or routine interactions influence one’s character. While some may see Paterson’s life as unimportant or even pretentious, Jarmusch does his utmost to convey that to find purpose in life, people need to draw on what they know just as often as they draw on what they don’t.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” is full of heart from its modesty in actual production to the foundation of appreciation for everyday life.

Contact Sanjay Nimmagudda at [email protected].