‘Paterson” arrives like a warm embrace in the midst of winter, its tenderness and compassion first inspiring the viewer to reach out and hug its characters, then the man who made it. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch — who for three decades has personified indie-film cool and ironic detachment — this love letter to love and letters feels both like a throwback and an improbably bold leap forward.
Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, N.J., who wakes up at 6:15 every morning, goes to work, spends his day eavesdropping on passengers, comes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks their dog, stops at the corner bar for one beer, returns home, goes to bed and starts all over again the next morning. Paterson is a creature of habit with the soul of an artist — he composes simple, carefully crafted poems which appear on screen while he works them out in his head — whereas Laura’s creative life is chaotic and ever-changing. One day it’s cupcakes, the next it’s country music. Whatever she’s obsessed with, Paterson unconditionally supports her, even when her mania for black-and-white design threatens to drown him in a sea of polka dots, stripes and swirls.
There’s little narrative tension in “Paterson,” aside from one or two random encounters Paterson has in the bar, and an episode involving the bus. What becomes clear in the course of the movie is that Jarmusch has constructed his own version of a poem, with recurring images and themes that allow him to delve into the nature of commitment, artistic ambition and how inner life is shaped by the tidal pull of place and history.
Laura knows that her husband is a great poet. He could join the ranks of fellow Patersonian Allen Ginsberg, but he’s adamantly undriven. In fact, he’s a driver in Paterson, played by a Driver as Paterson, a nifty example of the motif of twins and doubles that Jarmusch plays with throughout a movie whose circular structure begins to feel as comforting as a familiar song — in this case, an anthem to a city that not only produced Ginsberg, but the boxer Hurricane Carter, the comedian Lou Costello and the anarchist Gaetano Bresci.
Those luminaries and others are referenced in “Paterson,” which Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes frame in ways that heighten the title city’s postindustrial beauty, from its stout redbrick factories and bridges to its waterfalls. (Paterson’s poems, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams — another working man from New Jersey, who paid his own homage to the city — are composed by Ron Padgett. Supporting players include the rapper Method Man and erstwhile “Moonrise Kingdom” couple Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.) If Farahani’s Laura threatens to grow cloying with her boundless, breathless enthusiasms, Driver is her perfect foil, his hangdog features and deliberate physicality singularly well-suited to Jarmusch’s talent for finding some of cinema’s greatest faces.
Lyrical, winsome and unhurried, “Paterson” finds Jarmusch attentive to the same straightforward visual composition and human foibles that graced such early films as “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law,” as well as his succeeding works. (There are also dashes of his signature screwball humor, here delivered by Paterson’s strong-willed bulldog Marvin.) But unlike much of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, “Paterson” is characterized by a sincerity so disarming that at first it feels like it might be put on. The seasoned Jarmusch fan may wait for the absurdist shoe to drop, but it never does — or at least not on the film’s striving protagonists.
Instead, viewers are treated to a portrait of romantic devotion, contentment and vocation all the more affecting for being so utterly, unapologetically heartfelt. Although Rilke is one of the few poets who isn’t explicitly invoked in “Paterson,” the movie uncannily captures his observation about two solitudes that instinctively “protect and touch and greet each other.” Here, Jarmusch draws a similarly tender portrait of love, in this case of two people nurturing one another’s most fragile dreams and guarding them anew, day in and day out.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some crude language. 118 minutes.