THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
If Jim Jarmusch made a movie about a bank heist, it wouldn't feature the actual robbery. It would be about what the robbers did the morning of their crime, or where they stopped for breakfast before slipping on their ski masks. His 2009 movie The Limits of Control was about an assassin, yet it focused on the man sitting around for days waiting for his assignment. Jarmusch's 2013 vampire picture Only Lovers Left Alive didn't feature any scares or bloodsucking; it was about romantic longing. The director is not interested in life's big moments. His films focus on the little ones. As such, he has become one of the most original and vital voices in American independent cinema, with outstanding pictures like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Broken Flowers to his name. His latest, Paterson, represents Jarmusch doing everything he does well to the best of his abilities.
The story is set in Paterson, New Jersey, and focuses on a city bus driver, also named Paterson (Adam Driver). We follow him through a week of his life. He gets up, spends a little time with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), goes to work, writes poetry during the downtime, comes home, then goes for a drink at his favorite bar. While the days' events are exactly the same, there are different details. Laura, who is obsessed with black-and-white, has repainted something in their home. A fellow bar patron (played by scene stealer William Jackson Harper) carries out some new romantic drama. The passengers on the bus have conversations about varying topics.
Paterson is about how those little differences fuel the lead character's poetry. Snippets of conversations he hears on his bus lead to thoughts, which lead to ideas. He is able to formulate surprisingly thoughtful poems based around ordinary things. The early scenes of the film show him developing one about a box of matches he finds at home. The finished version is a tiny masterpiece of how minute personal preferences not only help define us, but also help comprise our day-to-day existence.
Typically for a Jarmusch film, there is no grand drama. Instead, you are invited to live Paterson's life with him for seven days, noticing the way he absorbs seemingly mundane occurrences going on around him and then reshapes them into creative inspiration. One of the best scenes finds him meeting a little girl who also writes poetry. They sit and talk. She reads one of her works. He can't stop thinking about it, even excitedly reciting a few lines later on for Laura. That's Paterson.
At the same time, the movie is filled with Jarmusch's wonderfully dry humor. Laura, for example, gets a lot of laughs with the way she continually transforms their home into a two-color palace. Actually, she's an interesting character because we can't quite get a read on her. She seems to spend her days pursuing personal flights of fancy, while Paterson works. She encourages his writing, and he seems to tolerate her eccentricities. But does he really love her, or is she just great inspiration? The offbeat nature of their relationship – and our inability to quantify it – provides some additional humor. On a slightly alternate track, the movie contains an Easter egg for fans of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom that will elicit a smile.
Adam Driver is an unexpected, but perfect choice for the role of Paterson, conveying the driver's quiet, observant nature. We come to sense that what initially seems like passivity is actually an attempt to take in all the stimuli around him. Driver does an excellent job suggesting how the character processes everything. Between his work on HBO's Girls, as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this, it's obvious just what a versatile actor he is.
Jim Jarmusch has been making interesting films since the 1980s. Like any director who's been working that long, his filmography has some great movies and some that are flawed. Regardless, all of them are worth seeing, so unique is his perspective. Paterson absolutely ranks among Jarmusch's best films. It may be his most personal, too. Certainly a filmmaker who focuses on the small stuff has a lot in common with a poetry-writing bus driver who does the same thing.
( out of four)
Paterson is rated R for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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