Adam Driver gives one of the loveliest and least likely to be rewarded performances of the year in Paterson. Why least likely, you ask? Because Driver’s indelibly moving portrayal is so lived-in and lyrical you hardly recognize it as acting. He plays Paterson, a poet who drives a bus in the New Jersey city of Paterson. Yes, the city and the poet have the same name. Don’t cringe. You’ll get over it. Written and directed with grit and amazing grace by indie icon Jim Jarmusch – hard to believe it’s been 32 years since his breakthrough film Stranger Than Paradise – his latest film takes its good, sweet time working its way into your mind and heart. But when it does, you’re a goner.
Jarmusch lets us hang for a week with Paterson as he lies in bed with his lady love Laura (the gifted Iranian actress and musician Golshifteh Farahani), a wannabe country singer with a knack for designing cupcakes. Our everyman begins his daily ritual. He scarfs down a bowl of Cheerios, takes a stroll with Laura’s English bulldog Marvin, picks up passengers on his bus, eavesdrops on their conversations, grabs an after-work beer at the local bar. Then he returns home to restart the cycle. Nothing remarkable, except for the moments that Paterson jots down a verse inspired by his experiences. Anything can strike his fancy, including a vintage Ohio Blue Tip matchbox to his encounters with fellow amateur artists, a rapper (Cliff Smith, a.k.a. Method Man) and a young girl (Sterling Jerins).
How do you make a whole movie about the mundane that doesn’t stay mired in the humdrum? You enlist a filmmaker and an actor are both so attuned to the poetry of the everyday that they seem like a match made in cinema heaven. The jangle of the digital present is all but absent here; even when Paterson and Laura go to the movies, it’s a revival of the 1932 horror classic Island of Lost Souls. We know Paterson is a military vet, mostly from a photo of him in uniform on the family dresser.
Paterson’s verse – the work of Oklahoma-born poet Ron Padgett and, in one case, Jarmusch himself – sometimes appears onscreen in writing or spoken by Driver as if he’s feeling out the sound of the words in his mouth. Laura pushes her soulmate to make copies of his notebook, but he hedges, finding his bliss in the process of creativity rather than its dissemination. Yet the city of Paterson and its history (it galvanized the epic work “Paterson” by Jersey physician-poet William Carlos Williams) slowly seeps into the film’s DNA. Williams also celebrated the beauty in the seemingly banal activities of the common man.
Near the film’s end, after Paterson suffers a dispiriting loss, he meets a Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagase from Jarmusch’s Mystery Train), visiting the city to rekindle his creative fire. The filmmaker holds the camera on Driver, alone on a bench, to express the emotions swimming inside Paterson’s head. The actor is more than up to the challenge, nailing every nuance. Williams saw poetry as “equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” It’s clear that movie’s hero and its creator would agree. Their film, one of the year’s best, inspires us to look closer at the world around us. Jarmusch’s quiet spellbinder is intentionally small. It’s also a small miracle.