Film review: Paterson is worth every moment
In Jim Jarmusch’s most melancholy indie tome to date, Paterson (Adam Driver) is a 30-something bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He lives in a relentless cycle of sameness and within it, finds moments of escape writing poetry, most of it decent, and in the vein of his favourite poet, William Carlos Williams. He scrawls these verses when he finds a moment, notebook propped against the bus steering wheel, in between his shifts. Other times he heads to his tiny basement workroom, which is crammed with the works of brilliant writers he barely believes he can emulate.
We see his words appear across the screen like inspirational quotes on Tumblr pages. They’re good, but never good enough to be grounded in the real world. The stanzas float by as transitory moments and vanish back into the author alone, private thoughts that exist to fulfil his need to write them down and little more.
Paterson won’t show his work to anyone, not even his fatally positive wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who begs him for just a few lines or to at least make Xerox copies. That he never does becomes a devastating, stomach-dropping plot point that adds to the helpless murk of Paterson’s already fairly futile creative journey.
The film has been described by some reviewers as a tribute to creation for creation’s sake, art for art’s sake, making things for the love of it alone. Yet it’s made clear Paterson distantly dreams of being like his favourite poet, he’d just never dare give voice to that fanciful ideal. When he runs his fingers along the spines of great novels, the reality of making any lasting work of his own is painfully untouchable.
He’s talented but not overly so. His wife is the same. Laura paints the whole house in her trademark abstract back and white patterns, she bakes cupcakes last minute for a local market, she buys an expensive guitar and learns half a song.
Unlike her husband Laura dreams out loud – of making a great fortune from her cupcake business, of becoming a country singer. She makes enough money at the market for dinner and a movie. She learns enough music, we imagine, to play a few open mic nights. These small victories are seen as immense successes. Her fantasies are giddy and huge and she sees no limit to the strange luck of possibility. When she regales him with these lofty fantasies, Paterson just nods and says the equivalent of “yes dear” in a way that is both oddly retro and speaks of the film’s ultimately dark heart.
There are other characters who pop up, trying to find love or fame. No one in this movie is achieving anything. They’re not artists, they’re hobbyists, and each year that passes makes that clearer.
There is a narrow ray of hope in the film’s final scenes, where a classic Jarmusch motif – strangers popping into a character’s life to change their fortune in surreal and unexpected ways – is engaged to moving effect.
But even that glimmer feels like it won’t go anywhere except back down to the basement, where Paterson will gaze at the spines of those classic works he loves and pretend he never cared that his own doesn’t stand beside them.
Adam Driver’s sodden, broken performance (quite the opposite of what we are used to from him) is brilliant, but sucks any sense of a happy ending out of those closing scenes.
In many ways Paterson is a sort of suicide letter to indie culture, a long goodbye to a moment where everyone was making something and anything seemed possible. It feels bigger than a pean to growing up and losing faith, but a sullen, sidelong glance at the leftover artists from a very specific time period for whom becoming a part of popular culture was never truly possible.
The most surprising thing about Paterson is how many reviewers saw it as a feel-good film. Despite its moments of warmth, a dark humour built out of repetitive frustrations and moments of sentimental whimsy, it’s a deeply depressing artwork, one that, to this reviewer, questions the worth of creating anything at all.
Sad at it is, like the vast majority of Jim Jarmusch’s excellent films, it’s stunningly shot, paced like an inescapable dream and worth every moment you spend with it.
Paterson is in cinemas now.
Review by Marta Jary