The master text fueling “Paterson” is the poetry of William Carlos Williams, himself a resident of Paterson, New Jersey, where Driver’s character — also named Paterson — resides. Going through the motions of his quiet routine as a bus driver (on the Paterson route, natch), he enjoys domestic bliss with his pregnant wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their surly pug Marvin, whose passive reaction shots provide comic punctuation in this understated saga. While Laura harbors casual dreams of being a country music star and takes on a hobby making cupcakes, Paterson shows little ambition beyond occasionally scribblings verse as he drives around town.
It’s here that he ruminates on the minutiae of his tiny world, from inanimate objects to his love life. His evenings are similarly ritualistic, as he walks the dog to his neighborhood bar, lorded over by a Falstaffian bartender named Doc (a wonderfully ebullient Barry Shabaka Henley), where more disposable topics come up: Romance, television, Iggy Pop, the usual. As Paterson and Doc bear witness to the ongoing relationship problems between fellow barflies Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon), the setting provides the main character with an recurring outlet for putting his life in the context of other people’s problems.
And that’s about as much story the movie offers up, but it’s more than enough material for Jarmusch to riff on what it means to be alienated by creative desire. A handful of conflicts come and go, but they’re so expertly threaded into the movie’s gentle rhythmic flow that they never hijack the bigger picture. While unexpected events pierce the slow-going pace, they arrive like the climaxes of stanzas that speak to the overall design. The thematic clarity injects an overarching intrigue into every scene, with Paterson visibly trapped between his need to express himself artistically and the struggle to do it any other way.
Jarmusch has never excelled at precise dialogue, and some viewers may find a few of the clumsier lines in “Paterson” to be a distraction. But that’s part of its disarming charm, and Driver’s an ideal vessel for carrying the movie’s nuanced focus. The actor’s long features and lanky figure make him a perfect fit for the filmmaker’s universe (and not only because he bears a striking resemblance to John Lurie in Jarmusch’s breakout “Stranger Than Paradise”). Setting aside his ongoing work on HBO’s “Girls,” it’s unquestionably the actor’s finest performance to date.
Overall, however, “Paterson” belongs to its director, who excels at capturing the serenity of daily existence and what it means to find deeper meaning in passing moments. The movie has them in droves: On a date with his wife, Paterson’s gaze shifts from the screen to the expressions of the audience as he seemingly contemplates every person’s individual story. Elsewhere, he engages in an amiable conversation with a 10-year-old girl on the screen, who’s writing poems of her own that bear a marked similarity to his style. (He seems less bothered by comparison than intrigued by the cross-generational bond.) The greatest passages come from Paterson’s driving scenes, when he eavesdrops on random exchanges about topics ranging from anarchy to social outings that wouldn’t feel out of in his vignette-driven “Coffee and Cigarettes.”
But “Paterson” has too much clarity of mind to fall into a similar category. The story builds to an accidental circumstance that, on the surface, might not seem like a big deal — but in the context of Paterson’s tiny universe, resonates with tragic connotations. The brilliantly cryptic finale explores what it means to work back from personal setbacks to find a new source of inspiration. It’s an apt statement from Jarmusch, a filmmaker who continues to surprise and innovate while remaining true to his singular voice, and who here seems to have delivered its purest manifestation.