Dir/scr: Jim Jarmusch. US. 2016. 118mins


Writer-director Jim Jarmusch often explores existential themes, but they’ve perhaps never been so beautifully unadorned as they are in Paterson, a deceptively modest character piece that’s profound and moving while remaining grounded in the everyday. Observing a bus driver (played with incredible grace by Adam Driver) over eight days, the movie turns the tiny details of its protagonist’s life into a deeply felt consideration of marriage, love, compromise and the casual oddities inherent in being alive.

This film may be playful, but it’s quite sad and thoughtful underneath

Premiering in competition at Cannes, Paterson will cater to the same crowds that have supported this independent filmmaker over the last 30 years. The presence of Driver, who saw his profile rise exponentially thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, might help shine a slightly brighter spotlight on the movie, but word of mouth and positive reviews will be just as important to stoke commercial interest.

Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver who writes poetry during his downtime. Living with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a cupcake chef who dreams of becoming a country music star, Paterson (who just so happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey) goes through his daily routine, which includes jotting down some lines for his latest poem and stopping by his favorite bar every night.

Jarmusch often utilises distinct genres, such as the Western (Dead Man) or the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive), as accessible delivery devices to express troubling questions about the mysteries of existence. But with Paterson, his only camouflage is the story’s unassuming day-in-the-life structure, which straightforwardly studies the similarities and slight differences in Paterson’s routine.

It’s natural that such a description will invite comparisons to Jeanne Dielman, that masterpiece of minutiae. But Paterson is far looser, funnier and more contemplative, offering enough novelty in Paterson’s days that Jarmusch illustrates how the weird random event or unexpected surprise keeps any of us from truly having a “normal” day.

But Paterson’s life-affirming tone is smartly offset by Driver’s reserved, faintly melancholy performance, the actor consistently hinting at the emotional undercurrents flowing beneath the character’s placid surface as he listens to his passengers’ conversations or writes about his marriage through his poems. (Poet Ron Padgett supplies Paterson’s verses.) Driver’s subtle shifts in inflection are crucial to mapping the development of a young man becoming aware of his stasis.

Neither romanticizing Paterson’s ordinary life nor patronisngly lamenting it, Jarmusch crafts a wonderfully precise portrait that’s both specific and universal. The transition from one day to another underlines how, despite the fact that Paterson and Laura have a loving relationship, they’re slowly creating the foundation for what might become problems later. (Farahani is superb as a supportive wife whose desire for Paterson to publish his poems is laced with passive-aggressive frustration whose roots only gradually emerge.)

Throughout, Jarmusch sprinkles in cosmic anomalies that go unexplained, such as Paterson’s repeated spotting of twins around town, or the accusing looks of the family dog that start off adorable but begin to take on an air of inexplicable foreboding. This film may be playful, but it’s quite sad and thoughtful underneath. In Paterson, Jarmusch examines what makes a life worth living, encouraging his protagonist (and maybe the audience) to do the same.

Production companies: K5 International, Amazon Studios, Le Pacte, Inkjet

International sales: K5 International, carl@k5mediagroup.com

Producers: Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan

Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch

Cinematography: Frederick Elmes

Editor: Affonso Gonçalves

Production design: Mark Friedberg

Music: SQÜRL

Main cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Cliff Smith, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase