It’s that time of the year where most film buffs’ cinematic diets end up jam-packed with Oscar-baiting, portentous dramas, and so it’s especially refreshing that the latest film from the brilliant Jim Jarmusch avoids high-stakes conflict in favour of a far more gentle consideration of the human condition and the nature of art, led by a magnificent Adam Driver.
Paterson (Driver) is a bus driver living in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, with his passionate, free-spirited wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). When he isn’t working, Paterson loves to write poetry, and Laura insists that he should make copies of his work to share them with the world, but Paterson doesn’t seem quite so sure. As their differing life ambitions come into conflict, the pair attempts to figure out what they really want out of life.
While on the surface this may sound like a vaguely pat, Good Will Hunting-esque “man who works menial job is an actual genius” drama, Jarmusch smartly doesn’t ever really make a case for or against Paterson’s poetry; the only opinion we hear of it is from his own wife, who as such doesn’t count at all. The little we hear of it may or may not seduce the audience, and the point ultimately isn’t whether his writing is good or not, but what he wants to do with it.
Meditating on the purpose of art – is it for mass consumption or one’s own enjoyment? – is an incredibly niche subject and not one commonly explored by actors who have appeared in Star Wars movies, but it’s shot through with a wealth of good humour and terrific acting that prevent it from ever feeling dry. Some genuine insights into the creative process (Jarmusch clearly working from what he knows) don’t hurt either.
Best of all beyond all this, though, is the movie’s unexpected subversion of what could so easily have been a relatively formulaic narrative through-line Jarmusch cleverly sows seeds that pay off later in unexpected, hilarious ways, while mining quiet, restrained emotion out of his well-drawn characters.
It will remain to be seen whether Driver will pick up much awards love for his performance; it’s an incredibly modest, reined-in turn with no real Big Acting at all, though he’s sure to have his passionate cheerleaders moving forward. Even outside the circus of the awards race, though, he’s another terrifically memorable Jarmusch protagonist in a movie dripping with soul even though it doesn’t feel the need to bang its own drum.
Paterson is in UK cinemas November 25th and US cinemas December 28th