Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
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For the past 20 years, Jim Jarmusch has more often than not opted to bring his distinctive worldview to bear upon otherwise familiar genres: the Western (Dead Man), the gangster flick (Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai), the vampire movie (Only Lovers Left Alive). But what if he returned to the loose, lovely, seemingly inconsequential vibe of his early films?
Paterson feels like it could be subtitled “A Week in Jarmusch-land”. It’s the story, if that’s not too grand a word, of Paterson (Driver), a bus driver in the New Jersey city that, coincidentally, bears the same name as he does: Paterson. He drives, listens to his passengers chew the fat, goes home to girlfriend Laura (Farahani) and her sardonic bulldog Marvin (a shoo-in for the Palme Dog, surely?) and then he hangs out at the local bar.
Paterson also writes poetry, which forms on-screen as he writes. It’s the kind of distilled, haiku-like appreciation of little things that appears in other Jarmusch films; one poem revolves around the brand of matches Paterson likes. One of the big surprises here is that none of the verses was written by Jarmusch but an actual poet, Ron Padgett.
That’s about it, plot-wise; Jarmusch almost lulls you into serenity with the daily repetition of situation, even going so far as to replicate entire shots and sequences with only minor variations. Paterson is so steadfast in his Zen reverie that it’s a wonder he doesn’t crash the bus. With Adam Driver playing the role, you might expect volatility, especially after Kylo Ren. One of the poems speaks of a match “sober and furious, stubbornly read to burst into flames” and you suspect that’s where the character is heading. But it’s a lot subtler than that; a chance for Driver to find a soulful, delightful groove. His laugh alone is something to cherish.
For this is Jarmusch’s hymn to finding something you love, and loving it. For Laura, it’s an undisciplined hop-skip-jump between painting, baking and playing the guitar, but there’s no judgement; Jarmusch and Paterson alike encourage her whims, because they get why she’s doing it, and Farahani’s warmth and optimism are gorgeous.
But then (relatively speaking) all hell breaks loose – a series of minor setbacks that have the cumulative effect of making Paterson’s optimism crack and reveal hidden pain beneath. Could there be a quiet, unspoken dread in Paterson that actually he’s got it wrong? Everywhere he goes, he meets twins, and, indeed, there’s the rhyme of his name/town (and even the actor and his character’s occupation; did Jarmusch cast first and then decide what job he’d do?). Does everybody need a twin? Laura’s many outlets are united by her belief in black & white colour schemes; a running gag that the art directors and costume designers have fun with, but which give her a metaphorical companion. For Paterson, he’s assumed poetry is his twin – perhaps because the great William Carlos Willians once wrote a book called Paterson. But what if it isn’t? What if his twin is Marvin: indolent, stubborn and grouchy?
This is a brilliant film, all the more so because it clearly won’t be for everybody. How refreshing that Jarmusch can even make it – which suggests that, for this director, Amazon Studios might be his twin. The big story of Cannes 2016 is how many films are funded by the VOD giant, but Jarmusch might be its best beneficiary yet. While they’re courting cool cats like Nicolas Winding Refn, they’re encouraging unusual, uncommercial fare from directors who are no longer flavour of the month (hello to Spike Lee’s Chiraq) and seeing great talents reborn. Here, certainly, the result is an auteur giving their voice an unfiltered workout. No genre, only Jarmusch left alive. Regardless of who’s funding it – that has to be good thing.
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This review was originally published alongside the film’s premiered at Cannes 2016. Paterson was one of five films acquired by Amazon Studios screening at the festival. For more of our Cannes coverage from last year, click here.