Nominative determinism operates on two levels in Jim Jarmusch’s latest wry comedy, which not only stars Adam Driver as a bus driver (woah) but makes his character the namesake of the New Jersey town, Paterson, where he lives and works. Paterson wakes each morning beside his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). He takes his neatly folded clothes, gets dressed, eats breakfast and then strolls through the golden-pink dawn light to the depot, where he sits at the wheel and writes poetry in the style of his hero, William Carlos Williams (who wrote a five-volume poem, called Paterson, which was published between 1946 and 1958).
Then he sets off on his bus route. Lunchtime is spent writing more poetry; his words, which we see on screen as he composes them, were actually written by the 74-year-old Oklahoma-born poet Ron Padgett. In the evenings, Paterson walks to the neighbourhood bar. Each night ends with him staring down at the circular rim of his beer glass.
Circles loom large in his life. His home is daubed with white painted circles. The food he eats is circular – oranges, pies, Cheerios, muffins. He spends his days behind the giant circle of his steering wheel completing the same circular bus route, gazing occasionally at the circular face of his wristwatch. One sign that Paterson may be chafing subconsciously against his life comes in the opening shot, when he pulls back the covers on Monday, the first of the seven days chronicled in the film, and we notice that his checked underwear clashes with the pattern of tiny circles on the sheets.
This is characterisation on the level of costume design but then Jarmusch admirers will know not to expect anything too demonstrative. Since Stranger than Paradise, the 1984 comedy that gestured half-heartedly in the direction of road movie and buddy movie without committing to either, his work (including the western Dead Man and the vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive) has occupied a kind of negative space, defined more by what it isn’t than by what it is.
Paterson isn’t a genre piece but it does belong broadly to that group of pictures about people whose lives of calcified normality break down – Falling Down, say, or American Beauty. These often use rebellion as a rupturing force, whereas Jarmusch’s low-key approach owes more to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, in which deviations in domestic routine signal grave disorder ahead. When Paterson wakes up on the film’s fifth day, it is slightly later than usual and Laura has risen before him. This seems to create some minor cosmic rupture that is palpable throughout the rest of the day. For one thing, his bus breaks down. The LED display showing the destination (“PATERSON”) flickers and fades as though Paterson himself were dying. The evening is rounded off with a disturbance at the bar that ends with his face framed against the chessboard linoleum floor. That shape returns the next day when an important document is reduced to tiny, tattered squares. The age of the circle is over.
Paterson is in a funk and a less generous film might have laid part of the blame for Paterson’s torpor on the woman in his life, as American Beauty did rather cruelly, but Laura is full of ideas and vitality. Though it is she who has decorated their home with circles, she is also partial to the odd wavy line. Any film full of shots of people thinking has to be cast with interesting faces, as Jarmusch clearly knows. Farahani seems to be lit from within; even when silent, she crackles with imagination. Driver, with his long, sloping brow and soulful lips, is both formidable and sympathetic, like an Easter Island statue that’s a really good listener.
He captures gently Paterson’s quality of being forever on the brink of comprehending his own life. After Laura dreams of having twins, a note of mild panic creeps into his poems in the shape of a simile involving children who will “never see the light of day”. He may want children, he may not. He may just be registering that he has reached the time of his life when he should. The film doesn’t bring this, or any of its ideas, to full term. Like Paterson, it remains pregnant with possibility.
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile