Jim Jarmusch has an enduring reputation as one of the leading hipster voices in American arthouse cinema. He can transform any genre, from Westerns to gothic vampire horror, into something that no other filmmaker would ever imagine. His movies are distinctive as hell, but their quirky eccentricities can prove somewhat off putting; if you aren’t on his wavelength, the deadpan genre subversions of a movie like Only Lovers Left Alive can only be regarded as equally pretentious and trying too hard to achieve an effortless sense of cool.
Now, one of the leading purveyors of hipster cinema has left all sense of style behind and done the unthinkable: making a low key social realist drama, depicting the heart and soul that beats behind everyday blue collar life. Paterson depicts the week in the life of the titular bus driver, who roams the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, forever unfazed by the fact he essentially acts as a tour guide to a city with whom he shares a name. Played by Adam Driver, this is one of the strongest performances of the year, albeit one that is defined by an integral understatement. Any tutor in a screenwriting class will gladly inform you that character is action, but Jarmusch goes even better; his screenplay effortlessly transforms this man of few words into a bona fide working class hero, who always manages to find the poetry in the most mundane everyday situations.
Driver is best known for his showy performances, from playing a sex pest in HBO’s Girls to the personification of evil in The Force Awakens. Here, this most distinctive of on screen personalities is transformed into an average Joe effortlessly; even without the internal monologue as he develops each piece of poetry, every single glance shows that he is a keen listener, a humanist whose faith in humanity is restored and even influenced by even the most menial conversations. It is the kind of role that only becomes fully fleshed out through the performance – as fantastic as Jarmusch’s dialogue is, it is only in Driver’s low key, yet delightful, reactions to conversations he hears in passing that make it truly sing.
The process of creating art has been long laboured over in cinema, from authors struggling to create books and directors struggling to complete movies, there is no shortage of narratives detailing this torturous process. Paterson transforms this tired, cliched and oft-pretentious narrative by making its central character a poet who doesn’t want to share his art with the world. Instead of seeing the creation of art as a time consuming pain, we see the utter joys of poetry develop before our very eyes, as initially pretentious writings get transformed into fully fleshed out meditations on life as Paterson continues to write.
Again, the key to portraying this process is through Driver’s wonderful performance; a sequence where he is is simply sat at a bar, whilst other people play chess or have conversations around him is transformed into an understated masterclass in portraying the search for artistic inspiration. Even better, it isn’t remotely pretentious, despite the fact I’ve just made it sound like the most pretentious thing that ever existed.
Paterson is pretty much a model citizen; he has a stable, loving relationship and is quietly a bedrock of the local community, who feeds off the artistry of the local residents. We see utter joy in his eyes as a young girl reads a poem she has written and a fawning adoration as he hears a rapper rehearse some lyrics in an empty laundromat he’s passing. It is hard to convey just how moving it is to see somebody so enthusiastic about the small bursts of creativity that unfortunately take a backseat to the daily grind of the working class lifestyle. When you work hard doing menial work for a living, it is hard to maintain your creative side – that Paterson is defined by his artistry is nothing short of inspirational.
Like Boyhood, I imagine Jarmusch’s film will be derided by many as not containing any narrative to speak of, although like Richard Linklater’s masterwork, this is a stunningly dense look at everyday life, obscured by an all-American realism. Seeing the everyday through the perspective of a creative mind helps transform a low key character study into something more akin to magical realism; the end result is nothing short of utterly joyous. In the space of a week, Paterson’s life accumulates hope, happiness, tragedy and the most unexpected brick joke I’ve seen all year.
After so many social realist dramas depicting the bleak side of life that have emerged recently, Jarmusch’s film is a welcome reminder that a working class hero is something to be. He may be divorced from his trademark style, but this is undoubtably the best film in his back catalogue – and without a doubt one of the finest works of the year.