Four years after he went missing, a man called Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wanders out of the desert near the Texas/Mexico border in a catatonic daze. He is collected by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), an LA property developer who has been looking after Travis’ eight-year-old son Hunter (Hunter Carson) with his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) since Travis’ disappearance. They return to Los Angeles and Travis is reintroduced to his son, who barely remembers his father, or his mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) who also vanished at the same time. Something terrible clearly happened to the couple’s relationship, but as Travis slowly wins Hunter’s trust, it becomes clear that he must also find his wife and make peace with the past.
Wim Wenders’ beautiful road movie is an affecting mix of both European and American sensibilities. Wenders and his cinematographer Robby Müller (the former German, the latter Dutch) see an America that its natives probably take for granted; they are fascinated by giant elevated freeways that rise out of the desert and by steely skyscrapers reflecting the dazzling Texas sun. Sam Shepard’s script and Ry Cooder’s haunting slide guitar score give the film its roots, but as integral as the setting is to the film (the title refers to a small Texan town in which Travis believes he was conceived), it is the pain and loss of these characters that most interest the director.
Travis is a man that we get to know slowly. We’re some 20 minutes in before Harry Dean Stanton actually has any dialogue, and even when he comes to Walt and Anne’s home and begins to talk, it is he who seems like a child, not his son. But as Travis gradually gets to know Hunter, we see a connection far stronger than the one that Walt has with the boy and understand why he must take his son on the road with him to locate Jane. Finally, when Travis does find her, working in a strip club on the outskirts of Houston, Stanton delivers one of cinema’s greatest monologues, the eight minute summation of the couple’s life together that begins “I know these people…” This heart-breaking scene is a world away from the grand American landscapes that have dominated the rest of the film; Travis and Jane sit in a small peep-show booth, separated by a one way mirror, Jane unable to see the husband she left five years earlier, Travis turned away from her, unwilling to look upon the face of the woman whom he loved so deeply so long ago.
The film is perfectly cast, and while Stanton dominates the film, Dean Stockwell is also effective as the brother torn between love for his brother and fear that his return will mean that he and his wife may lose a child that they have raised as their own son. Hunter Carson is that rare thing – a good eight-year-old actor, while Nastassja Kinski is so beautiful that you truly believe that Travis could have been driven nuts with jealous desire. The ending is the probably the happiest possible outcome for these characters, and yet also desperately sad – it reminded me very much of the final moments of John Ford’s The Searchers. Paris, Texas is easily Wenders’ best film, and a masterpiece of loss and regret.
Reviewer: Daniel Auty