To tell you about this movie, I need to tell you about my wife.
Sometimes, lying awake at night, side by side, Anne and I listen to our neighborhood. Traffic becomes the ocean, waves breaking on a beach. Wind in the evergreens is the roar of a crowd. Fire trucks: trumpeting elephants that charge from the circus tent of the fire station next door. Anne’s favorite is the rush of the midnight street sweeper. She has written poems about the driver’s rumbling reverie, out there “tracing the bones of the city.”
Anne’s attentiveness to poetry is what drew us together in the first place. I strive to learn from her compulsion. Like the angels in Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, she carries empty journals with her into her days and fills them with glimpses of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her patient watchfulness quiets my fears and helps me hear the still, small voice of the Spirit.
That’s why Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s meditative new comedy, feels so necessary, essential—even medicinal for me.
Movies about poets are a hard sell. Perhaps I can get moviegoers’ attention by telling them that the movie’s lanky leading man, Adam Driver, is the same guy who threw spectacular tantrums as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (He’s also onscreen this month as a brave and emaciated missionary in Martin Scorsese’s masterful Silence.) But here, Driver’s a driver, steering a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, the town that shares his name and wins his heart. His bus is non-articulated, but he’s as articulate as they come.
The movie’s heartbeat is our driver’s creative process—his line-by-line composition as he makes his introspective way about town. And if we surrender to the film’s meditative pace, we may find ourselves discovering suggestive implications in common sights along the route: a road sign that says “Prospect Street,” a building’s bold letters that say “Department of Recreation.” As in the poems of Paterson’s favorite poet, local legend William Carlos Williams, “so much depends upon” details that seem commonplace.
I’m not the first to notice this film’s formal resemblance to Groundhog Day (Variety’s Justin Chang got there first). But although every well-structured day looks alike—he begins each one by checking the time, then puts on the same old uniform—he’s vigilant for variations on the form. Paterson proposes, “Hey, what if you woke up each morning and discovered, to your delight and astonishment, that it’s another day?!”
Jarmusch seems to take an almost perverse delight in teasing us with familiar plot possibilities, and then bypassing predictable turns. He’s too in love with his characters to reduce them to “delivery devices” for meaning. That’s been the strength of his films from the beginning. Down By Law, Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes, Only Lovers Left Alive—in these films, the people, in their exquisite idiosyncrasy, are the purpose.
Paterson never knows what to expect when he comes home to his impulsive, dream-driven wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). One moment she’s an aspiring country singer, the next a painter, the next the cupcake queen of Paterson. But there’s no crisis brewing. He just loves her. And so do we.