Paterson Review: The Year Of The Stubbornly Low-Key Drama Continues

Adam Driver is a bus driver-come-poet in this fantasy about life lived off the grid

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There seems to be a trend this year for low-key dramas in which stubbornly little happens, from Casey Affleck's family saga Manchester By The Sea in which the character arcs are about as big as road bumps to Loving, this year's interrogation of America's history of racism that contains virtually no scenes of conflict, tension or danger whatsoever.

It's almost as though the real world is so bewildering and unpredictable at present, we're taking refuge in art that stays still. When the news is a daily horror show of barely-plausible plot twists, cinema is paradoxically becoming a place of calm, where the thrills and spills of previous decades are being replaced with a sense of longing for life lived at a glacial pace and change that is both incremental and reasonable.

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The latest example of this cry for calm is Paterson, a new film from indie director Jim Jarmusch that competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year (a prize eventually won by I, Daniel Blake, another studiously undramatic offering albeit one with pointed political aims).

In it Adam Driver plays a bus driver called Paterson, living in a town also called Paterson where he was born and raised. Every day Paterson walks to the depot where he works and sits for a while writing poetry in his private notebook - unaffected, modernist verse in the spirit of his hero William Carlos Williams. He then sets off on his shift where he enjoys listening in on fragments of his passenger's conversations, before going home to his wife and her grumpy bulldog. At night, he visits the same bar for a single beer and becomes lightly drawn in the mini dramas of the other patrons.

There are some lovely things about this film. Paterson's aspirations as a poet extend no further than pleasing himself – it gives his life routine and purpose. He is no frustrated writer longing for recognition - on contrary, he resists even making copies of his work - and the poetry is neither terrible for cheap laughs nor so good as to force him into the undiscovered, working class genius archetype. It is self-expression for personal, private ends - the antithesis of the social media age (Paterson refuses to own a smartphone). His wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) has her own aspirations – baking, playing guitar, endlessly redecorating their modest home – and is similarly talented and successful at all of them. It is a portrayal of a happy marriage, made out of respect and mutual affection – Jarmusch, too, has an abundance of both for his characters.

All of which is cosy, comforting - and frustratingly slow. Those unfamiliar with Jarmusch's previous work - Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Broken Flowers both had the same quiet, pleasant tone of a day dream – would be forgiven for waiting for something – anything – to happen. Is Laura a fantasy, existing only in Paterson's head? She is certainly perfect enough to be one. Is the protagonist going to, at any point, snap - cry or shout or buckle against his nice but (perhaps this is just me) strangely suffocating life?

I won't spoil the surprise. But suffice to say, for all Paterson is a beautiful, textured thing – subtle and warm-hearted with interesting points to make about living life on your own terms – it is also intermittently dull. Films this placid ought to be either very funny or very profound: Paterson is not quite either. Like so many of this year's critically acclaimed films, the overall sense is more akin to visiting an art gallery - you marvel at the craft, but before long you're wondering how long it is before you can politely move on. A strangely muted year for cinema continues: whether that's what we need right now or not is a matter of personal opinion.