Film Review: Paterson

by Carrie Kahn on January 6, 2017

So much depends / upon / a lovely motion / picture / directed with much / love / in the cinema / today

Bus driver/poet Paterson (Adam Driver) writes poems before his shift.

Jim Jarmusch is one of those divisive filmmakers about whom everyone seems to have an opinion; people seem to either love his meditative, slow, literary style, or they find themselves frustrated by it, with very little middle ground. If you’re in the latter camp, you probably won’t like Paterson, his newest picture, which, like so many of Jarmusch’s best films (Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes) is similarly laconic, thoughtful, and slow-paced. But if you consider those qualities plusses in your cinematic experience, then you need to see this lovely, gentle, and introspective gem.

Jarmusch holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia, which makes perfect sense when you consider the subject of this most recent of his dual writing/directing projects. Paterson is about a bus driver in Paterson, NJ, coincidentally also named Paterson (Adam Driver, in what might be his best performance yet). But the coincidences don’t stop there; Paterson from Paterson also happens to be a poet, just like one of Paterson’s most famous real life residents, William Carlos Williams, who, of course, also penned an epic poem titled — yes, you guessed it — Paterson.

And with literary winks like that sprinkled liberally throughout the film, Paterson will especially appeal to English majors or those particularly familiar with William Carlos Williams’s work (besides containing overt references to his poem Paterson, the film also features the recitation of one of my favorite Williams poems).

We can get a glimpse of Jarmusch’s thematic inspiration, in fact, in this stanza from the Paterson poem:

“Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter –
Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass”

Paterson (Adam Driver) and his artist wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) have a supportive, loving relationship.

Indeed, a large part of Jarmusch’s picture is spent closely watching Paterson as he observes and listens to others, on his bus, on his lunch break, on his walks with his surly dog Marvin (Nellie), and on his visits to his local pub. Driver outdoes himself in these scenes, wordlessly conveying a whole range of emotion, thought, and wonder with small and subtle facial expressions. Notice, for example, the scene in which Paterson, driving his bus, glances periodically in his review mirror as he overhears two men talk at first boastfully, but then shyly, about women in whom they’re interested. As in the lines from the Williams poem above, we can actually see Paterson’s “thoughts sitting and standing” as he muses on the lives of these passengers.

When Paterson gets inspired by such bits of his daily life, we see the words of his poems appear on screen as he composes them (the poems in the movie were actually written by American poet Ron Padgett, and some are better than others, as is fitting for an amateur poet like Paterson).

The film takes place over the course of a week; the weekday names are flashed on screen for us as they change. But what we start to notice immediately is the similarity of Paterson’s days: he wakes up around 6:15 every day without the help of an alarm; he eats a bowl of Cheerios; he drives his route; he eats lunch and writes or reads poetry; and he walks his dog and stops in at the bar for a beer before returning home to his sunny and loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Paterson’s relationship with Laura is the film’s other focus; in contrast to Paterson, who is a bit more reserved and who holds a day job, Laura is a free spirit who spends her days in various artistic pursuits, from painting the shower curtain to baking cupcakes to learning to play guitar. Laura is a dreamer, we learn, and while Paterson also has similar creative impulses, he’s quieter about them, and Laura tries to push him to share his “secret” poems, which she continually praises. But the beauty of their relationship is that they are both intensely supportive and understanding of one another; it’s rare to see such a layered, positive portrayal of a well adjusted, happy, loving couple on screen.

English bulldog Nellie, who passed away in the spring, was posthumously awarded the Palm Dog award at Cannes for her arf-istic portrayal of Marvin, Paterson and Laura’s dog.

What the film lacks in narrative tension, then, it makes up for in its contemplative study of the creative drive. Just because your life may revolve around routine, as Paterson’s clearly does, doesn’t mean you don’t have a rich inner life. In one telling scene, for example, we see Paterson ask his bartender friend Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) how he’s doing; Doc replies dismissively, “same old, same old.” But, in reality, Doc is a passionate chess player, and he presides over a bar in which two of his regulars are experiencing fiery romantic misfortune; he has more going on than meets the eye. And thus Jarmusch underscores his film’s point: it never is just “same old, same old” with anyone we meet.

As Walt Whitman, another famous American poet, once observed, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Indeed. Your grocery cashier may have Pollack-like paintings at home; your barista might have an unfinished novel on her laptop. There is poetry in all of us, and all around us, Jarmusch is showing us here. There is magic in routine if you look hard enough; coincidences and profundity are present every day.

There can be poetry in the mundane — the “ideas in things” that Williams describes (one of Paterson’s best poems is prompted by a box of matches). All of us can be artists, and all of us can lead – and are deserving of – a rich creative life. Such is the message of Jarmusch’s film, and watching that message unspool and be delivered in such a moving, elegant, and reflective way becomes pure poetry itself.


Paterson opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco, and will expand to more Bay Area theaters next Friday.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cineaste January 7, 2017 at 9:28 am

Fantastically written review. Thank you.


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