Film Review – Paterson: Restrained, Almost Graceful

Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios
Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios

The more I watch and think about the latest from writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law) the deeper I fall in love with it. Describing what it’s about is defeating its purpose and doesn’t do it a lick of justice. It’s a quiet film that digs into how human beings find beauty and inspiration in the midst of our day-to-day, seemingly uninspiring routines. But it also concerns the small miracles that happens to us when we stray from our routines, even just a tiny bit. And Paterson is one of the few films about an artist living in a small town, in which the artist doesn’t feel trapped or confined by his surroundings. This man loves where he lives and writes poetry that looks at his environment with fresh eyes and an open heart.

Paterson encompasses a week in the life of a man named Paterson (Adam Driver, having a hell of a year, also appearing in Silence and Midnight Special), who works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He lives with his beautiful wife, Laura (the radiant and quite funny Golshifteh Farahani), who by contrast, is brimming with ideas about every aspect of their lives—from the color of shower curtains to ways she can live out her dream of becoming a country singer. In most cases, she makes the modifications to their cozy home herself with the aide of a paint brush and a boundless creative streak. It’s clear that Paterson is crazy about her and inspired by her passion. The balance each other because he is largely reactive; he’s an observer who saves his responses for his poetry.

Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios
Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios

Part of his routine is waking up at more or less the same time every morning (no alarm necessary), going to and from work, watching and listening to the riders (look for very amusing cameos by Moonlight Kingdom child stars Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), walking his dog, stopping by the local bar for a single beer, and heading home to his wife. Jarmusch always returns to the routine, but on each day, something slightly different and unexpected happens, and by the time Paterson returns to the routine, he has experienced something that some might call Life.

Jarmusch has been making films long enough that he marvelously walks a line with his storytelling where you can choose to search for deeper meanings or simply let the events play out without such considerations. What does it mean that Paterson keeps seeing twins all over town? Why does the history of the town become a major discussion point in the film, even though it never really comes into play in what little plot there is? Why does Paterson’s dog dislike him so much? (Truth be told, I think the dog came with Laura in the marriage.) Jarmusch seems content to create characters that he would enjoy spending time with, and he populates his movies with largely likable people, who sometimes struggle, but for the most part, they are capable of finding beauty in the everyday.

Driver has never been better. For most of the film, he seems mildly amused by the world around him, and that keeps Paterson content and charming in a quiet, unassuming—but not off-putting—way. We watch his small gestures and glances in the same way he notices the tiniest changes in the world around him. Driver is capable of strapping on a full-on oddball performance when the occasion calls for it, but in Paterson, he’s going for something restrained, almost graceful.

Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios
Photograph courtesy of Amazon Studios

It’s almost become cliché to say, but the city of Paterson is its own character as well, and one we get to know quite well since we drive through almost every square inch of it, and are told of its few landmarks, including the Lou Costello Memorial Park (named after the town’s most famous son) to the Great Falls, which served as an inspiration to poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote an epic poem about the town and is Paterson’s favorite poet. It’s one thing to use a location as a beautiful background to your main story, but Jarmusch immerses us in this place until we feel a deep longing to book at least a day-trip to it.

Paterson is quaint, charming, curious, deeply engaging and one of the finest profiles of the artistic mind that I’ve seen in recent memory. The fact that this character takes a small part of each day to scribble down a few lines of verse that he never intended to show anyone, let alone publish, is extraordinary in this era of devices and gossip and outrage. And it doesn’t take long for us to the the beauty of the world the same way he does. How often does that happen?

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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