One of director Jim Jarmusch’s most quoted lines is about with the minutiae of everyday life. “The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events.” And if ever a phrase summed up Paterson, that’s it. A film about those details which, to the people involved, aren’t small in the slightest.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver. In Paterson, New Jersey. He lives with his adoring wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) whose career dreams shift from making a fortune from cupcakes to becoming a country singer. And the other occupant of their home is her bulldog, the jealous Marvin (Nellie). Paterson is a poet in his spare time and the film takes us through a week in his life, following his daily routine – driving the bus, meeting friends, acquaintances and strangers, listening to his poetry and learning more about him. More than he’s ever aware of revealing.
Those small details of daily life walk hand in hand with its rhythms and they soon draw us in, so that we’re almost a part of Paterson’s routine. Incidentally, we never know if Paterson is his surname or first name. There’s his morning chat with his supervisor before he takes his bus out on his usual route. He eavesdrops on his passengers, sometimes finding them amusing, sometimes drawing inspiration for his poems, which he writes in his secret book during his breaks. In the evening, there’s his walk with Marvin which always ends up in the same bar, talking to the same people. And at home, there’s his wife’s taste for black and white décor and even more unusual cookery. A slice of sprout and cheddar cheese pie, anybody? It’s the same every day, yet it’s never the same. There’s always something happening, even if it appears trivial, and it’s a way of life that Paterson has fully embraced.
To make sure we don’t become too comfortable and cosy with all this routine, Jarmusch bowls the occasional googlie. Paterson’s bus breaks down, leaving him and his passengers stranded. Everett (William Jackson Harper), whom he meets at the bar, is so distraught at being dumped by girlfriend Marie (Chasten Harmon) that he threatens to shoot himself. The quiet and unassuming Paterson handles both situations with a calm quiet authority, hardly batting an eyelid. And we also get the back story to one of his other routines. When he returns from work every evening, he collects the post from their mailbox. It’s on a pole and it’s always lopsided. He straightens it, it’s still straight in the morning but by the time he gets home in the evening, it’s wonky again. Why? That’s our secret, because Paterson never figures it out.
Yet why would a young, intelligent, sensitive man willingly live a life that, to the outside world, appears boring to the point of tedium? And why would he so clearly want it that way? We’re never told directly, but the clues in the way he deals with problems and in the photograph of him in the bedroom. He’s wearing a Marines uniform, with a chest full of medals. Who knows what he saw or experienced in the days when that photograph was taken, but it could easily be the reason for his love of what others might consider mundane. And his efforts at poetry, of course. How good they are is debateable, although they are certainly better than his wife’s efforts in the kitchen. Both of them have their dreams and, even if they don’t achieve them, they never stop trying.
If you’re looking for dramatic tension and conflict, then this isn’t the film for you. The closest Paterson gets to that is Marvin’s glowering resentment. But it’s a film that holds you in the palm of its hand with its small, detailed observations, exquisitely understated humour which is guaranteed to give you the giggles and performances to fall in love with. Especially from Adam Driver who, after a series of supporting roles, steps into the spotlight and is perfection as the would-be poet with a deeply buried history. Golshifteh Farahani is delightful as his child-like wife, flitting from one fad to another. She genuinely adores him – and he worships her – but she seems completely oblivious to his hidden depths, with the exception of his poems. Bulldog Nellie, aka the malevolent Marvin, waddled off with the Palm Dog at Cannes, although sadly it was posthumous.
Delicate, deceptively simple and full of so much loving detail that it would fill at least one of Paterson’s own notebooks, this is a film to savour. A contemplative and perfectly formed little gem. When small details bring so much pleasure, who needs big events?
Paterson is released in cinemas on Friday, 25th November.