Paris, Texas opens with an expansive, aerial view of the desert. It isn’t clear where we are exactly, but the landscape is reminiscent of Monument Valley in John Wayne’s Stagecoach and The Searchers. Over the top of this picturesque scenery, we hear a lone slide guitar that has a certain toughness and wisdom to it, as if the player has “seen things” and is sharing these experiences and lessons with us. This perfectly sets the stage for our protagonist to enter: we’re introduced to a thin man with hungry eyes and a rugged beard. He’s wearing an oversized pinstripe suit and a bright red baseball cap. He’s covered in what appears to be years worth of dust. The man is Travis, played by the great character actor, Harry Dean Stanton. We later learn that Travis has been wandering for four years — where he’s going, not even he seems to know. He’s as weathered as the very desert he’s trudging through. He stumbles into a backroads gas station and collapses from exhaustion. When he wakes up at the local hospital, his brother, Walt Henderson, played by Dean Stockwell, is phoned by the local doctor to come fetch him. This sets the story in motion.
As directed by Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas is nothing short of a masterpiece. Something interesting tends to happen when great European directors try their hand at capturing the American myth on film. We’ve seen this time and time again, whether in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) or more recently in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). European directors possess something that can’t be had by American directors: an alien quality. They themselves are outsiders, and the stories they tell often reflect that; like a bird looking down at the land from above, they see another side of American life.
The screenplay for Paris, Texas was written by L.M. Kit Carson, adapted from tales recalled in the playwright and actor Sam Shepard’s 1982 memoir, Motel Chronicles. Anyone who’s familiar with Shepard’s work will notice this connection immediately — what with the endless highways, dimly lit bars, dingy motels, hard liquor, tough male protagonists, absurdity, alienation, and rage, all elements which have made Shepard one of America’s greatest and best-known playwrights. This pairing of Shepard and Wenders couldn’t have been more fitting. Wenders was already known for making great road movies. His earlier films Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) highlight this. The guitar-centric score, written and performed by Ry Cooder, is mesmerizing, soulful, and transcendent — not surprising, since this American musician was a longtime collaborator with such artists as Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. The photography by Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller is breathtaking. His knack for capturing vast landscapes and beautiful night scenes really shines through. At times the colors and lighting are almost otherworldly, but it somehow works with the film as a whole.
Paris, Texas is a story of loss and redemption. The protagonist, Travis, was once married to a young woman and together they had a little boy. After a series of events, he lost his wife and son, setting him adrift. He cut all ties to his past life and began wandering, perhaps searching for an answer to what had gone wrong along the way. After his brother, Walt, picks him up in Terlingua, Texas, they begin making their way back to Walt’s home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Anne, played by Aurore Clement, and Travis’s son, Hunter, played by Hunter Carson. Hunter was left with the Hendersons four years before by his mother, and Travis’s wife, Jane, played by Nastassja Kinski, as she could no longer care for him. During the early half of the film, Travis gradually reassembles a self that he lost track of. Seemingly mute, he begins to utter words for the first time in years. He has become fearful of traveling by plane, forgets to close the door when exiting a car, doesn’t sleep at night, and he doesn’t like the feel of the new boots Walt buys him — he trades them in for an old, worn pair of Walt’s. Despite his odd behavior, it’s clear that Travis hasn’t lost his mind; he’s simply lost in a state of grief for the family and marriage he ruined through his drinking and jealousy all those years ago.
He stays with Walt and Anne for a while, slowly gaining Hunter’s trust. There’s a wonderful scene where he walks Hunter home from school and they mimic each other’s moves. The closeness forming between Travis and Hunter makes Anne nervous — she fears she’ll lose the son she has raised and grown to love as her own. After an honest conversation with Hunter about his mother, Jane, he and Travis get into Travis’s old Ford pickup truck and begin driving to Houston in search of her. Travis learns that she’s been sending a check for Hunter each month from a bank in Houston.
On their way, Travis and Hunter bond over conversations about Jane, dinosaurs, and the origin of the universe. They often communicate with each other via walkie-talkies — symbolic, in a way, of the lingering years of distance between them, and foreshadowing the conversations to be had by Travis and Jane later in the film, existing only between a telephone separated by a one-way pane of glass in the booth of a bizarre sex club. The first time we really get to see Jane and hear her voice is incredibly surreal. It almost feels like we’re in Travis’s strange dream. She’s hauntingly beautiful. Her eyes contain a world of mystery. It takes Travis a long time to get his words together and say something to her. We can feel his pain as he sees what this woman he once knew so well has made of herself. Jane cannot see him through the one-way glass; he can remain anonymous for now, allowing him a safe amount of distance to gather his thoughts and form his plan.
Travis knows he won’t ever be able to bridge the years of separation and pain between him and Jane. He has finally found his family, and he must lose it once again, though this time not through carelessness, but rather, through sacrifice. He understands what’s best for them, and it isn’t him. When he visits Jane again, still anonymous to her, he tells her a story. He can’t look at her while telling it: “I knew these people. These two people. They were in love with each other. The girl was very young, about 17 or 18, I guess. And the guy was quite a bit older. He was kind of raggedy and wild. And she was very beautiful, you know?” He then speaks of a time that was at first too wonderful for words: “[E]ven a trip to the grocery store was an adventure.” He continues, speaking of how the man would quit jobs just so he could stay at home with her, and she’d get mad. And he’d drink and become jealous, thinking she was seeing other men on the side: “[H]e’d yell at her and start smashing things in the trailer.” Jane repeats, “The trailer?” It is in this moment when she realizes it’s Travis talking to her — this is their story. He continues speaking and we learn that she took Hunter and left Travis behind, setting the trailer on fire while Travis was sleeping. He awoke engulfed in flames and ran and ran for days on end “until every sign of man had disappeared.” Jane looks away from Travis and tells a story of her own. Afterward, she turns off the light on her side of the booth and he turns a light towards his face so she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her in a hotel room. He gives her the room number and leaves. He and Jane never even touch.
Jane reunites with Hunter in the hotel room. They embrace in a moment that provides great catharsis and resolve for the audience. Travis watches them from a parking lot roof in the distance as the sun slips below the horizon, then he gets in his pickup truck and drives away. One can’t help but wonder what will become of Travis, and of Jane and Hunter — Will Travis go back to wandering the desert? Will he start a new life? Will she be able to care for Hunter? Will she quit her job? What will happen to Walt and Anne, and their family? The film mightn’t be completely realistic, but that isn’t Wenders’ or Shepard’s style. They both tend to deal in fables. They take deeper truths, sow them into simple human stories, and allow them to grow into the stuff of legend. Fortunately, thanks to the revelatory performances by Harry Dean Stanton (in one of his only leading roles), Nastassja Kinski, and the young Hunter Carson, disbelief is never an issue in this film.
Tom Yoannidis was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1990. Raised by a wild/artistic mother (model/private pilot/photographer) and an adventurous father (commercial pilot), he moved to New York on a whim in 2012 to study acting, and graduated from the Maggie Flanigan Studio in late 2014. He then moved to Toronto to work as an art director/art director’s assistant on TV commercials before returning to study film at SVA. Tom is a hopeful director/writer in the making and an impulsive watcher of 70s cinema.