Poems slip across the screen like water in “Paterson,” Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful new dispatch from Jarmusch-land. Sometimes they appear over water, too, surfacing word by word on images of the Great Falls along the Passaic River in Paterson, N.J. No pen or pencil directly spells out these words, no clattering keyboard or banging typewriter. Instead, the words — in a neat, cramped hand — appear onscreen as they are read aloud by their author, Paterson (Adam Driver), a soulful bus driver and basement poet. It’s as if he were beaming his heart-song straight from his head into yours.
A movie about art, creation and how images become words (and vice versa), “Paterson” seems deceptively simple. Its hero, Paterson, works in (where else?) Paterson. Every weekday, he rises early, kisses his beloved, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and heads off to work, where he turns the ignition on a big city bus and rumbles into the bright world. Some of that world comes to him, clambering onboard in a blur of ages, hues and conversational interests. Mostly, Paterson looks out through the bus’s windows, views that turn life into discretely framed images.
It’s a quiet life, its rhythms determined by labor and the old Monday through Friday routine. Like most people’s workweeks, his story opens on a Monday, that word stamped on the screen. Dividing stories into units of time, into hours and days, is a familiar structuring device, sometimes used for suspense or to create a countdown. Stanley Kubrick inserted days on title cards in “The Shining,” jumping from “Tuesday” to “Thursday,” a gap that suggests that something is amiss with time itself and that amps the unease. In “Paterson,” by contrast, the march of days announces both the regimentation of Paterson’s punch-clock obligations and the story’s structure, its pattern.
Patterns — including yards of circles, dancing squiggles and twinned images — fill “Paterson,” creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling. Mr. Jarmusch likes to take it nice and easy, and this movie is fairly low-key, even by his fairly chill standards. Paterson’s work demands consistency, routine, punctuation and safety (no speedy action-flick escapades here), which create a kind of meditative flow. Passengers come and go, embarking and disembarking and talking or kidding about this and that. Paterson cocks an ear to listen to this human babble, bobbing in and out of its stream before heading over to the city’s magnificent Great Falls to eat lunch.
At home, Paterson spends time with Laura, his stay-at-home partner (she shares her name with Petrarch’s love), who nurtures her passions mostly by adorning every surface — walls, curtains and even clothes — with patterns. Laura is the movie’s one minor letdown, partly because she seems more frivolous than Paterson, with pursuits that are more hobbies than they are brow-furrowing art. He writes poems and reads deeply; she bakes cupcakes (she’s a whiz with a pastry bag) and buys a guitar off YouTube, announcing her unlikely dream of becoming a country singer. She’s an appealing, lightly comic figure whose main job is to be Paterson’s helpmate — his chef, cheerleader and, of course, muse.