Every year, at least one film gains widespread acclaim but, for whatever reason, never takes off at the box office. One example is last year’s Paterson, which passed by so quickly that even many regular moviegoers missed it. Now that it’s available on DVD, viewers have another chance to discover one of the most enjoyable and quietly moving pictures in years.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Adam Driver, Paterson is about a bus driver who works and lives in Paterson, New Jersey—and who happens to be named Paterson. That may sound like a gimmick, but Paterson is far more than that, thanks to its marvelous cast and Jarmusch’s refusal to play by Hollywood’s rules.
In Paterson, there are no explosions, betrayals, tragedies, or graphic depictions of violence or sex—just enchanting scenes that celebrate the beauties of everyday life.
The film covers a typical week in the life of Driver’s unassuming Paterson. His days begin around 6:15 each morning, with a kiss for his sleepy wife, Laura; a shower and change into his uniform; and a bowl of cereal. Paterson lives close enough to the bus terminal to reach it by foot. He puts in a full day’s work, driving bus number 23 along its usual route. After returning home to Laura, with whom he shares his day’s experiences and dinner, Paterson takes their dog, Marvin, out for his nightly walk, during which Paterson often stops at his local bar for a beer.
On the surface, Paterson’s life appears to be regimented and humdrum. But he is blessed with three factors that enrich it.
The first is his love of poetry. When he goes to work each day, he brings not just a lunch bucket but a private notebook, in which he writes poetry between shifts, especially while overlooking the Great Water Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson is inspired by the work of poets from Dante onward, especially that of William Carlos Williams—who not only lived in Paterson but wrote an epic poem about the place. Paterson (the bus driver) is humble enough to know he won’t become another William Carlos Williams; even so, he has talent and keen observational skills, working out his poems with care and consideration.
Paterson’s second gift is his natural goodness and decency, communicated with understated brilliance by Driver. Having served in the military, Paterson has retained its strong discipline. He is grateful, kind, and supportive toward people he meets—whether they be frustrated co-workers, anxious passengers on his bus, an aspiring rap singer in a laundromat, a couple going through a break-up, or a ten-year-old girl who, like Paterson, happens to be a poet with a secret notebook.
Paterson’s third and most important gift is his wife, Laura, whose marital love is as profound as his. When he introduced his film at Cannes, Jarmusch said he wanted to show Laura as someone who was “radiant, warm, lovely, talented, intelligent, vibrant, and beautiful.” He found all that in Golshifteh Farahani, an Iranian actress who lights up every scene she is in. Unlike Paterson, Laura is an extrovert, a modern woman who nevertheless embraces her husband, with all his idiosyncrasies. Paterson is so old-fashioned he won’t even carry a cell phone: “The world worked fine before them.”
Laura has big dreams. She hopes to open her own cupcake business, which she predicts will make them rich. “I’m ready for that,” Paterson says humorously and with affection. When Laura orders an expensive guitar in hopes of becoming a country singer, Paterson is equally supportive, though he can barely afford the instrument and lessons. At Cannes, Farahani described the couple’s chemistry: “It’s not a passionate love, maybe—it’s an eternal, long lasting love,” the kind the best marriages are made of.
It is no exaggeration to say that Paterson is an homage to marital love—something underscored by the way Jarmusch treats the film’s early-morning bedroom scenes. At no time does the film show the couple in anything but a chaste embrace. The film respects their privacy, though in one scene the sheets look like they may slip off Laura’s body—until Paterson makes sure she is properly covered. Modesty gets a shout-out in this film.
Equally refreshing are Laura’s motherly desire to have twins (provoking Paterson’s sudden awareness of twins throughout the film), and the love poems Paterson writes to his wife—gentle verses (composed by real-life poet Ron Padgett) which mention heaven, and include the remarkable line, “unborn children fearing they will never see the light of day.”
As the film progresses, Paterson and Laura’s dreams advance, until an unexpected event turns their world upside down. It isn’t a life-and-death issue, but it shakes Paterson’s equilibrium, and he wonders whether he will ever write poetry again.
The resolution to this crisis is perfectly rendered by Jarmusch in the film’s touching denouement. Like a guardian angel, a character appears who rescues Paterson from despair, and reminds him who he is and what he was always meant to be. It’s a life-affirming message that will resonate with viewers confronting similar challenges.
Paterson is a film that will long be remembered, and treasured.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.