Cannes Report: Adam Driver Finds Poetry in 'Paterson'

·Managing Editor

A new biography of Wallace Stevens — Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium — was recently published. With it came a slew of reviews and retrospectives, all of which reminded readers that one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century lived a small, self-contained, unexceptional life as an insurance executive in Hartford, Conn. I kept thinking of Stevens while watching Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson, which had its first press screening at Cannes on Sunday night. A gentle, attentive look at seven days in the life of an outwardly unremarkable man, Paterson is lovely in its simplicity, its big-heartedness, and its willingness to find the universe in the mundane details of one man’s days.

Paterson is both the man and the city: He’s a New Jersey Transit bus driver from Paterson, N.J., played by Adam Driver. He lives with his adoring wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and their dyspeptic bulldog, Marvin, and moves through his life with an understated regularity that’s like Groundhog Day without the anxiety: He gets up a little after 6 in the morning, walks to work with his lunch pail, drives his route, heads home, walks the dog, and stops off at the local bar for a beer and a check-in with the chess-playing barkeep, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). In between these unchanging backbeats, he’s got a secret notebook that he’s scribbling lines in — verse about the box of matches in his kitchen or the bit from the song his father used to sing. (We hear the poems-in-progress in voiceover and written onscreen — they’re actually work from the poet Ron Padgett.) Laura — a flighty free spirit who can’t seem to go one day without changing her mind or her life plans — urges Paterson to show his poems to the world or at least make copies of them. But he seems content with his secret writing life, his routine, and his basement nook full of books from fellow kindred spirits of the low-key, like Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams (who, we’re reminded often, made his living as a doctor near Paterson, N.J.).

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All the Jarmusch hallmarks are there: the dry humor, the vivid supporting characters who drift in and out, and the unstuck in time vibe, especially when it comes to the city it’s set in. With its soaring waterfall that used to power industry and now just inspires poets, the Paterson of the movie, like Doc’s bar, feels as beat-up and comfy as an old shoe. The movie pays such close attention to detail, it becomes moving — whether it’s the conversations Paterson overhears on the bus or the touching intimacies of his and Laura’s marriage.

Luckily for us, Driver — who entered a whole new galaxy last year with his role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens — is likely one of the few actors you don’t mind watching sit on a park bench and contemplate. Part of the tension the movie sets up is our wonder about what’s going to happen when Paterson’s routine is upended — by his sleeping too late, say, or leaving his notebook where he ought not to. By the end, there’s a sense that Paterson needs to be nudged. His poems might be just be words written on water, as he says at one point. But he’s going to keep writing them anyway.

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