The wilderness through which Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wanders at the start of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas is alternately beautiful and hauntingly empty. Like the siren's song, it is enticing and seductive but also foreboding and lethal. Sporting jeans and a baseball cap, traditional American wear, Travis could be any healthy American male. In the middle of a desert, however, shuffling aimlessly and aged prematurely by a wild beard and sunken eyes, this vision of the American male becomes something ominous: even in the endless expanse of the Americas, a man might be unable to find a home.
Severely dehydrated, Travis passes out in a gas station and is taken to a hospital. The doctor, a German, looks through the man's possessions and calls Travis' brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) to come get him. By the time Walt gets down to the US/Mexico border, though, Travis has set out again, and Walt must routinely find his brother on the side of a road, put him in his car, lose Travis when his back is turned, and so on. I'm so used to seeing Stockwell as the off-kilter, often evil character (Blue Velvet, Battlestar Galactica), that to watch him try to nurse this silent, traumatized man back to life was initially jarring.
Wenders' film unfolds with minimal plot. We learn that Travis has been gone four years, that he lost his wife and son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), though why we're not told -- Travis has been walking the desert so long that he's lost his memory. Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clément), took Hunter in when Travis left as did the boy's mother, and the first half of the movie generally deals with Travis' slow re-acclamation with his brother and son. Hunter, only 3 when his father left, understandably has few memories of him, so father and son must essentially start over from scratch. Carson must play the typical child role, the one that positions the kid as both realistic brat and unconsciously profound savant, yet he does so with a greater balance than I've seen in 99% of all other child performers.
Wenders does not bring Travis and Hunter together with your typical exchange of child's outrage at abandonment and parent's tearful expressions of regret and pleas for forgiveness. Hunter is at the age where potentially life-altering occurrences can pass largely without comment (when I was 6-7, my mom remarried and I was adopted to change my surname, and I never thought anything of that decision until years later), so he just starts calling Travis "Dad" even as he continues to do the same to Walt. Travis doesn't waste time apologizing because he cannot remember what he did that requires an apology; instead, he attempts to reconnect with his son with as little turbulence as possible. In a dry moment of comedy, Travis heads to a clothing store to try to dress like a dad, and he models the sort of goofy get-ups that dads stereotypically wear in a manner not unlike all those montages of gorgeous teens searching for the perfect outfit.
Eventually, the two bond enough that Travis takes Hunter with him to Houston to search for his wife, Jane. Travis learned from Anne that Jane sends a check to Hunter once a month, so he and Hunter stake out her bank, eventually giving cautious chase to a red Chevy that Hunter believes contains a woman who looks the one in the photo Travis gave him. Wenders manages to eke an impressive amount of tension out of this scene, as Travis attempts to tail a car that may or may not contain his wife, especially after he catches up to the car only to find another, identical red Chevy next to it and must choose which one to follow.
I've long been a fan of Stanton; a prolific character actor, his seemingly effortless control of emotions through body language and his ability to fit in naturally in a working-class sci-fi nightmare (Alien) as well as he does in a ludicrous, flag-waving blockbuster (Red Dawn) adds an extra dimension to his projects. Paris, Texas contains what is perhaps his finest performance: Travis does not walk the desert because he's insane but because he has been destroyed by grief. Without saying a word for the first ten minutes or so, he manages to establish his character with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Before Walt even asks the futile question, "What happened?" we know that this man's life has gone wholly and catastrophically wrong. When Travis heads to Hunter's school the first time to walk his son home, the look on his face when the boy rebuffs his dad to ride home with a friend -- more out of laziness than rejection -- is devastating.
But Stanton makes these earlier moments look like pantomime compared to what he pulls off when Travis is at last reunited with Jane, only to discover she works in an adult theater where men sit in a room with a two-way mirror watching women strip. Stanton, who had so few lines for the entire first half, engages in long conversations with Nastassja Kinski, who also puts in an incredible performance as the broken Jane. His first conversation is, understandably, awkward: stunned at the revelation, he can barely contain his tears as he talks to an unknowing Jane, though we sense even in this moment that he's planning something. Jane seems to catch on rather quickly, glancing at the mirror though she cannot see who's behind it. Travis returns, determined to reunite mother and son, and he delivers one of the finest monologues written for the screen: at last aware of what happened between them, Travis weaves a tale of youthful romance that turned into jealousy and drunken spite. With the marriage in shambles and Jane and Hunter already gone, Travis woke up one night to find their trailer on fire. He stumbled out and simply began to run away, never looking back. He concludes by telling Jane where her son is, and that the boy wants and needs her.
Paris, Texas draws a number of parallels to John Ford's seminal The Searchers, which is apparently the de facto choice for roundabout remakes (don't forget that Scorsese and Paul Schrader based Taxi Driver upon it as well). One could certainly compare Travis --also the name of Taxi Driver's protagonist -- to John Wayne's Ethan Edwards; at the end of the film, Travis stands on a roof watching the child reunited with his mother, and like Ethan he rides off into the distance. Where Ford's film positioned Ethan as your typical Western, indomitable hero, Wenders, working with Sam Shepard's no-nonsense script, suggests that Travis simply can't exist within a normal family.
One could certainly argue that Travis' interactions with the child and his evident love for his wife demonstrate a healthy potential for reconciliation, but Wenders uses the film to set up a sort of fable concerning the lengths one will go to for love. Having driven the three of them apart with his behavior four years earlier, he's simply too scared of doing it again, and so he sacrifices his chance to be with his wife and child to ensure their happiness together. It's an excruciating decision, though it's hard to imagine the character acting any other way: Ry Cooder's sparse acoustic guitar soundtrack is as spacious as the visuals, but it also doubles as a representation for the mixture of immeasurably deep agony and the belying sense of detachment within Travis. It meshes beautifully with the visuals (photographed by Robby Müller who, incidentally, would capture the same dichotomy of beauty and doom in the American West ten years later when he served as the cinematographer on Dead Man), which often cast close-ups of Stanton's masterpiece of a face against a massive background of wide open spaces, littered with rusting metal and fading billboards. It suggests, in a not altogether hopeless way, that some of us can never attain our vision of happiness, but perhaps we can find a certain solace in letting our dreams die.