Paterson is one of those films that, when describing it to somebody, you have to work a little to avoid making it sound dull. Man gets up, goes to work, comes home, has a beer, goes to bed – rinse and repeat. But while it may not be to everybody’s tastes – it’s a considered, slow-moving film – Paterson, for me, succeeds in creating a tone that is very much its own, and by practising exceptional levels of dramatic restraint, delivers a ponderous, thoughtful experience, much like the ones in its protagonist’s head.
Jim Jarmusch’s new film stars Adam Driver as Paterson, a mild-mannered, likeable everyman living in the city that shares his name in New Jersey. We follow a week of his life, as each morning he wakes up with his artistic wife, Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), and heads off to do his work driving a bus around the local streets. After finishing work, Paterson has dinner with his wife and then goes out to take their dog for a walk and have a solitary beer at a local bar. From time to time, as he goes through his day, we hear Paterson reciting lines of his poetry to us, often delivered in the form of unfinished thoughts or revisited lines.
That’s the setup, but also pretty much the plot. This is not a film with a superfluity of narrative to get through – just a simple idea portrayed in a convincing way. What makes it work is Jarmusch’s handling of tone, both in his direction and in his writing, and Adam Driver’s very subtle but subtly effective performance. There is no great emoting in here, no moments of hysterical drama – what we see is an excerpt from the life of an ordinary, and quietly interesting, man.
What I enjoyed about the film’s tone was how it floated through Paterson’s life by way of repetitive but slightly reworked shots, overheard conversations on buses and in bars, and the appearances of supporting cast members in the bar Paterson visits, which give the film a sense of community. Everything is wrapped up in an atmosphere of wistfulness – though not one that dwells on sadness; just a simple acceptance of moving through life – which is complemented by the delicate score.
It’s the overall tone of the piece that strikes as you watch, and that tone softens potentially negative elements such as the lack of character arcs or real development; indeed, it may be precisely the point that such things can be ignored without doing damage to the piece. The film depicts a quiet life, adopts a quiet manner in which to tell it, and is subtly affecting in doing so. It won’t be for everybody, and could perhaps have been edited down a little, but as a tonal piece it really works.