“No ideas but in things,” says one minor character in Jim Jarmusch’s marvelous Paterson. It’s a line from a poem by William Carlos Williams, whose modernist, imagist style imbues this dryly funny and profoundly moving film. Its sturdy pace, deadpan humor, and minimalist performances are common to Jarmusch’s work, but they find a perfect home here in the story of a man who quietly sees the beauty and art in the everyday.
It’s a film of coincidences, the kind that, when you stumble upon them, seem to tell you with a wink that you’re on the right track. Adam Driver plays a bus driver. His name is Paterson, and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, which is also the birthplace of his favorite poet, William Carlos Williams. By day, he moves throughout the city in his steel vessel, absorbing the people and conversations around him. On his breaks, he scribbles down Williams-esque poetry in his journal, inspired by his simple life. One is an ode to his favorite brand of matches. Another is a confession to his wife about his romantic fantasies. Driver reads them in voice-over, and Jarmusch prints the words on the screen, allowing the viewer to luxuriate in the creative process.
Needless to say, Paterson doesn’t have much of a plot, and it’s hard to imagine any of it working quite as well without Driver at its center. The young actor who entered the stage on HBO’s Girls, stole the show in Inside Llewyn Davis, and became a cultural icon as Kylo Ren in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has an inner stillness that implies observation, but his jagged face—with its long nose, narrow chin, and wide-set eyes—makes him compelling to watch and impossible to pin down. Like a good poem itself, he looks different from every angle and invites you to find yourself in him. We wonder what makes him tick and resign ourselves to never knowing.
At its heart, though, Paterson is a love poem. Maybe Paterson doesn’t say much because he doesn’t have to. His softly cheery wife (Golshifteh Farahani) understands him entirely, and he gets her, too. Her art lies in her obsession with black and white design. She paints their walls, curtains, and doors in monochrome. She puts half of Paterson’s daily sandwich, which she lovingly makes each morning, on pumpernickel bread and the other half on white. Even her dog, Marvin, with whom Paterson shares a softly adversarial relationship, comes in black and white. Like her husband, she puts her art into her life, making the one they share rich with beauty.
It’s tempting to look for meaning in these designs and coincidences, but Jarmusch’s steady pacing refuses such inquiries. With each shot seeming to be of almost identical length (six or seven seconds), the film draws us into a gentle trance, which must be what it’s like in Paterson’s mind, where everything has intrinsic meaning and nothing is a symbol. It’s a lovely place to spend two hours. In a world beset by divisions and distractions, so much depends on Paterson, who looks at the world with clear eyes and finds beauty in the ordinary.
Paterson opens Friday at E Street Cinema.