Throughout his career, Jim Jarmusch has cultivated a reputation for, among other things, exploring the lives of outsiders, whether they be New York hipsters (Stranger than Paradise); strangers in strange lands (Down by Law, Mystery Train); an accountant named William Blake who may be a reincarnation of the poet of the same name (Dead Man); a hitman who abides by a samurai code (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai); or a pair of holier-than-thou vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive). By comparison, there’s little that’s outwardly eccentric about the eponymous main character of Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver residing with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), in the northern New Jersey city of Paterson, where he lives a seemingly humdrum life of routine: riding the same NJ Transit bus on the same schedule Monday through Friday, walking Laura’s dog Marvin every night and leaving him tied up outside as he grabs a beer at the same local pub. Only one thing distinguishes him, but it’s crucial: his love of poetry—not just reading it, but writing it, scribbling down ideas for potential poems in a notebook whenever he has a free moment.
With maybe the exception of the aging, rueful Don Juan Bill Murray played in Broken Flowers, Paterson is the closest Jarmusch has come to examining the life of an utterly ordinary man, and thereby, by extension, addressing everyday life as you and I experience it. In that sense, Paterson could be seen as possibly Jarmusch’s most focused statement of philosophical intent. Here, in this gentle, repetitively structured chronicle of a week in the life of this fairly nondescript human being, is the auteur’s view of life as it ought to be lived: one in which art becomes a way to fill one’s soul, adding color and meaning to one’s existence.
But this isn’t the first time that Jarmusch has posited this view of life and art’s role in it. In some ways, the seeds of Paterson can be seen in a film that, to this day, is still generally—and, to my mind, unjustifiably—considered possibly his weakest: his 2008 film The Limits of Control.
It’s easy to see why many critics and audience members were turned off by The Limits of Control at the time. Though Jarmusch once again drew on a classic genre—the existential hitman film, exemplified by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and John Boorman’s Point Blank—this time he didn’t even bother to create dimensional characters. All of the supporting players revolving around the stoic and laconic Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) are little more than mouthpieces for various artistic/philosophical positions, all of them strung together with the barest of plots, which has something to do with a hit whose endgame isn’t even fully revealed until the very end. With Jarmusch showing no interest in giving audiences even a hint of conventional genre excitement, The Limits of Control understandably jarred most viewers with what, for all the exotic Spanish settings and colorful costumes, is an unapologetically academic work.
And yet, viewing it now in light of Paterson, it’s remarkable to see how much the film anticipates it. Just as Paterson lives a life defined by habit, so does the Lone Man: doing the same Zen relaxation exercises every morning, demanding two cups of espresso to be delivered in two separate cups in cafés. Jarmusch reflects this penchant for routine in his technique, patiently capturing the finer points of his daily routines, occasionally repeating the same camera set-ups to depict the same actions while varying them from instance to instance with others. And if anything, the Lone Man is even less demonstrative than Paterson is. With arguably one exception—a scene in which he drops in on a flamenco rehearsal, during which one can see him cracking the barest of smiles—he maintains the same blank expression throughout. To a completely nude woman’s erotic temptations toward sex, he says, “Not while I’m working.”
But it’s in those aforementioned directly articulated artistic/philosophical positions that comparisons between The Limits of Control and his latest film most tantalize. If Paterson situates its paean to the potential of art to enhance a life in a recognizable real world, with characters that feel authentic in their commonality, the earlier film makes similar points in a considerably more stylized context. With the Japanese avant-garde rock band Boris laying on the droning guitars and cinematographer Christopher Doyle capturing richly colorful and inventively dreamlike imagery, The Limits of Control exudes the feel of stepping into an unfamiliar environment, the various repeated phrases and clues dropped only enhancing the sense of a world just beyond the realm of the ordinary.
If there’s a thematic thread that ties both films together, though, it’s precisely that sense of trying to tap into a world outside of the boundaries of our own perceptions. Certainly, that applies to Paterson’s fondness for poetry: In his own quiet way, through his sketches of poems about matchboxes and waterfalls, he’s trying to uncover a sense of the sublime in the everyday. But, in a broader, grander way, so is the Lone Man. He may be a hitman on the surface, but in the baldly allegorical The Limits of Control, he’s also a sponge for the perspectives on the world he hears from the people he encounters, including a cowboy-hat-wearing blonde (Tilda Swinton) discussing the insights that can be gleaned from watching old movies, a Japanese woman (Youki Kudoh) positing the possibilities of the study of molecules in deciphering the past, a Mexican (Gael García Bernal) citing the power of hallucinogens as he waxes about the fluid nature of reality and perception.
Throughout, certain phrases are repeated like mantras. “He who thinks he’s bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery,” goes one; “there he will see what life really is: a handful of dust.” (This even becomes the lyrics of the flamenco song the Lone Man witnesses in person.) Another key pensée is in Spanish: “La vida no vale nada”—in English, “life is worthless.” Only until the Lone Man finally meets his target—a Dick Cheney-like American (Bill Murray) who rails against all of the people the Lone Man has met on his journey, claiming that they don’t really know how the real world works—does the full meaning of such phrases reveal itself. Life may seem pointless on the surface, but not if you’re willing to look beyond the surface and plumb hidden depths of perception, all of which art, science, philosophy and other such disciplines can help unlock for those open to them.
In that way, then, The Limits of Control and Paterson could be seen as two sides of the same coin. If Paterson is about how art has the power to illuminate a life, then Limits is about art’s power to illuminate everything else in the world. Consider these two films, in tandem, Jim Jarmusch’s Artistic Mission Statement, with the ever-idiosyncratic director addressing his artistic beliefs in a manner more earnest and direct than in many of his other films.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.