To soothe my jangled, post-election nerves, I recently rewatched Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. Released in 1989, the film was on the vanguard of the American indie revolution. It pioneered the indie trope of preferring multiple, small stories over one, big, overarching plot, providing an inspiration to Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker; as well as the interlocking, time-shifted narrative structure that Quentin Tarantino would put to effective use in 1994's Pulp Fiction. Jarmusch's quiet, humane, observational style would resonate in films from Harmony Korine's Kids (1995) to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003). It was also the Big Bang for a lot of Memphis filmmakers who caught the bug while working on the South Main set or chased rumors of Joe Strummer shooting pool at the P&H.
Jarmusch's new film, Paterson, is something of a spiritual successor to Mystery Train. It is a celebration of place, only where Mystery Train winds through Memphis' mythicized landscape, Paterson rambles through the working class town of Paterson, New Jersey, in a battered old bus. Both films have a time constraint: Mystery Train takes place in the course of one eventful day at the flophouse, while Paterson is one week's worth of poetic journal entries. The biggest difference between the two films is perspective. Mystery Train views Memphis through the eyes of rockabilly-obsessed Japanese tourists and down-on-their-luck street thugs. Paterson's POV stays strictly with its protagonist, a bus driver named, appropriately enough, Paterson, played by Adam Driver.
Paterson (the character) is a quiet introvert. In the opening shots, Jarmusch establishes him as a highly ordered, simple, light sleeper who is, like the actor who portrays him, a Marine veteran. We watch him go about the rhythms of his day: He gets to work early, jots down a few lines of poetry in his journal while he's waiting to roll out of the station, exchanges words with his perpetually aggrieved supervisor, Donny (Rizwan Manji), drives the good people of New Jersey around on their daily chores, returns home to dinner with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and then walks Marvin, their bulldog, to the neighborhood watering hole, run by Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), where he nurses a single beer.
It's a simple life, but it suits Paterson just fine, because it gives him time to pay attention to the two things he is devoted to: his poetry and Laura. I am wary of movies about writers for a couple of reasons. First, movies are written by writers, and writers can self-mythologize in pretty ugly ways. Second, there is the inevitable scene where the guy (it's almost always a guy) whom the movie has been setting up as a genius finally reads his writing aloud, and it's terrible. Refreshingly, Paterson focuses on the poet's process. Lines appear onscreen as they are written in Paterson's journal, and we see the fits and starts followed by a sudden outpouring of words. Even better, the poetry actually sounds like it was written by a talented bus driver who idolizes William Carlos Williams.
Driver's stoic, subtle performance will go a long way towards cementing his status as America's Dreamy Boyfriend. On the surface, Farahani's character skews toward manic pixie dream girl territory, but it becomes clear that we're seeing her through the eyes of Paterson, who adores her unconditionally. She's not perfect, he just paints over her foibles and doesn't mind that she's not as good a cook as she thinks she is. The third outstanding performance is from the dog, Marvin, who consistently brings the best schtick to this low-key, almost comedy.
If the rise of Trump signals a resurgence of toxic masculinity, Paterson brings an antidote. Driver's Paterson is a compassionate, intelligent everyman without a greedy bone in his body. He's quietly interested in the people around him — the conversations he overhears on the bus and at the bar provide Jarmusch's signature micro narrative moments — and is heroic in the Hemingway sense of the word: He does his duty. Paterson is not a self-aggrandizing world conqueror, but one of the quiet heroes with hidden depth that make the world go around. Paterson may end up being one of the definitive films of our time, a careful character study of a man who makes a tough job look easy, kinda like Jarmusch himself.