Rating: 4 out of 5
The nature of relevance in contemporary culture is fickle, fading and unforgiving. A single leaked text or a tweet can create has-beens and never-weres seemingly out of thin air. The independent community often acts as if it has immunity to this particular grievance, but critics can be just as ruthless, if not more so than the general public. So when a filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch who has managed to not only keep his name hovering above the heads of cinephiles for three decades but has remained consistently cool in the process, it’s impressive when their filmography continues to change, reform and grow. His latest zombie-comedy has yet to reach my local theater here in Portland, however, his previous feature length effort Paterson is available to stream on Amazon. I missed the film when it was released in 2016 as I am not the biggest fan of Jarmusch’s output, but alas there is always something interesting, unique and uncanny about his films. Paterson finds Jarmusch operating in a low-key setting, which allows him perhaps more than ever to revel in his unadulterated affection for his characters.
The plot is simple, the daily routine of a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver in a role that reminds us why people started hiring this dude in the first place). He and his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani in a graceful performance) live a modest, cozy life in the small town of Paterson, a coincidence of which the film makes no small point. Laura is a free-spirit she adores art, music, reading, decor, where Paterson is a little more grounded, his routine is his life, her life is defined by a lack thereof. They are a sweet couple, Laura constantly urges Paterson to release his poetry, he supports all of her decisions and ambitions. The remarkable nature of Paterson, is that where some people may see nothing extraordinary about this story, Jarmusch has found depths of beauty, love and poetry. Every interaction in the film feels far more natural and less kitschy than past Jarmusch efforts, this time around he’s not trying to make the whole cast sound like beat poets, he’s letting them live in their skins. Paterson’s nightly walks to the bar are particular highlights, the rambling yet insightful conversations punctuate the tiny-dramas of this tale.
The film uses Paterson’s written poetry narratively and contextually. Thematically each poem solidifies the moods of each scene, but they also allow for a psychological opening into the main character, his world may appear plain and drab to the common eye, but the city of Paterson filtered through Paterson’s vision is one where matchboxes, hair, bus-ride conversations are the stuff of dreams, romances and poems. The filmmaking is wise not to share his romanticism, much like Jarmusch’s past work the cinematography is simple, plain and never intrusive, he might be one of cinemas most frank directors. This approach imbues the audience with a sense of discovery, Jarmusch is not guiding us anywhere, Paterson is. Every character sizzles with life which makes the understated filmmaking all the more effective, there is an excitement when one of them opens their mouths to penetrate the silence, it could be wisdom, poetry, honesty, or all of the three.
Coincidence lies at the heart of this film, a lesser filmmaker might have fed us a more perfect succession of events, one where everything bleeds into the other, every line of dialogue has an outcome or serves the purpose of foreshadowing. Jarmusch misdirects our assumptions about what should naturally befall the characters, creating expectations for certain moments that sometimes do and sometimes don’t come to fruition. The movie plays out like one long anti-climax. The peaks, the lows are part of the daily routine, and are only as devastating or life-affirming as we allow them to be; in Jarmusch’s hands he allows them to be just as they are. My only complaint about this film, is the music. Jarmusch helped create the soundtrack, having an ambient music career of his own but the pieces here reached post-There Will Be Blood levels of drama and theatricality, which is very in line with his past musical compositions. These somber tunes might’ve worked in a capital-p “Poignant” moment on a cable-drama but applied to images of Adam Driver softly reading poetry, driving a bus, tonally it was disruptive and frustrating, spoiling a few scenes.
Overall this has been one of my favorite efforts thus far from Jarmusch, so much so it actually inspires me to fill out the gaps in his catalog I have yet to explore. This is a fantastic entry-point into his catalog, the least pretentious and most accessible of his films. Unlike Ghost Dog this film feels like it gives a broad overview of Jarmusch’s career as an auteur. Ghost Dog has an element of trickery to it, there are elements of Jarmusch’s catalog in that work absolutely, particularly the strong presence of voice-over and outsider characters, but Ghost Dog also finds him in a state of end-of-90’s fervor, it’s a love letter to Japanese cinema and hip-hop, which are not explicitly present in all his work. Paterson is fondly indicative of Jarmusch’s filmography as a whole, reveling in all of its best qualities, in the process shedding many of his bad habits.