“Don’t go yet”
The first word my mind conjured after watching Wim Wenders‘ Paris, Texas was honesty. It’s delivered from lead Harry Dean Stanton all the way down to Robby Müller‘s gorgeous cinematography of untouched Mojave Desert isolation and graffiti-filled urban concrete. Nothing appears inauthentic and that’s not an easy accomplishment when you think about how this road-trip adventure steeped in Americana was constructed through the eyes of a foreigner. Credit screenwriters L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard for supplying the correct aesthetic on the page, but the success or failure of what’s onscreen is ultimately Wenders—a lover of this country from afar who somehow captured its ethos without stumbling into idolization or exploitation. He’s captured a human story that’s messy, sad, and bittersweetly hopeful. What’s more American?
It starts with a weathered thin stranger lost in the tumbleweeds of Texas with seemingly no destination in sight. He doesn’t speak, barely supplies the body language to communicate, and escapes the helping hands of those he crosses to continue towards the emptiness of the horizon as though its calling him. It’s a stroke of luck that someone is able to find a piece of paper on his person with the name Walter Henderson (Dean Stockwell), the one soul able to bring clarity to the drifter’s identity. His name is Travis Henderson (Stanton)—brother to Walter—and he’s been missing for four years without a trace. Gone too is his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), a crucial fact considering the couple has a young son (Hunter Carson‘s Hunter) together.
Walter and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) took the boy in and made him theirs once it appeared they wouldn’t be coming back. Could Travis have even spoken Hunter’s name before his brother traveled from Los Angeles to Texas in order to scoop him up? No. He’s found in such a daze that you’d be hard-pressed to cajole his own name from his lips. When Walter catches him powerwalking into the haze Travis is jolted awake with a look of disquiet rather than surprise or joy. That voice calling to him tries to turn his head once more away from this life he left behind, but something lets his brother in. To see the struggle on his face, though, is to witness fear.
There’s nothing more honest than that look because it isn’t fear for what he’s missing at the hypothetical end of his never-ending journey or what walking away has already forced him to miss. He fears himself—his soul ravaged by guilt and regret so that any glimpse of his former self recalls tragic events we’ve yet to learn. You must watch the film again to see it, however, because at first blush Travis appears to be a man suffering from heatstroke, his face contorted by disorientation rather than the fright of a man struck by memories he’s desperately tried to hold at bay. Only the mention of Hunter can stir something good inside him, the name triggering a sense of “home.” A home he destroyed.
Stanton is at his best during this portion of the film because we watch a transformation from deer in the headlights to shy innocence allowing a smile to break through when helpless to hold it in. Home brings him back to his youth and his mother. It brings him back to a tract of land he bought and the son he never thought he’d see again. These thoughts are why those smiles escape, but what worms its way into his consciousness afterwards is why he can’t sleep. Because thoughts of his mother mean visions of his father aren’t far behind. And thoughts of Hunter can only carry with them the love and sorrow of Jane. Suddenly he remembers the scary, manipulative motivations behind assumedly silly jokes.
There’s playfulness in Travis to cut through that darkness. Every time Walt loses his composure via a desire to know what happened to make Hunter arrive at their doorstep we see the pain in his brother’s eyes. He isn’t ready to talk about it and even if he were Walt and Anne wouldn’t be the ones he’d tell. Travis should be commended for this because he won’t make-up excuses—he knows nothing could redeem his past actions. All he has now is the potential to reconnect with his son. But he also knows Hunter is no longer his and maybe never was. That voice in the desert still beckons, but before he can answer he must set things right. He must find Jane to fix what he’s broken.
You have no idea how refreshing it is that Wenders doesn’t make this “broken thing” marriage. Lesser works would turn Paris, Texas into a romance overflowing with redemption and forgiveness without realizing some wounds are too deep. To say more would ruin a third act that continues to blow me away. You can’t understand just how perfectly everything works towards it until after witnessing the heartbreak. I’m not saying what comes before is boring outside of its context to what catalyzed his disappearance, just that its winding journey towards repair is so poignant in its yet unseen endgame. Nothing Travis does is for himself from the minute he arrives onscreen until it all cuts to black. For once in his life he’s finally acting for love.
And it’s in this love that Kinski steals the show because while Stanton delivers his monologue in calm monotone, she calmly falls apart without words. Set in a claustrophobia-inducing space of tacky faux house quarters and blackened room separating striptease listener from lonely stranger with one-way glass, we see both faces at once. His is turned towards us so it cannot see her and hers is focused on a sight out of her view, his words gradually coming into focus as a solitary tear upon her cheek signifies recognition. Kinski brilliantly moves from nervously knowing giggles to empathetic sorrow, each reaction pure and biting in its resonating simplicity. The revelations are perfectly measured to match each hint of remorse before them and yet powerfully impactful just the same.
Wenders, Carson, and Shepard meticulously build Travis’ progression in a way that tricks us into believing in happy endings. They provide his character’s rehabilitation. They provide Hunter’s gradual thaw to accept the memory of this stranger as his father. They even provide the comradery of father and son searching for their missing piece and yet nothing is quite as it seems because we aren’t aware of what’s torn them apart. A happy ending can still occur, but not how we’re wired to hope. In this depiction of bittersweet love, happiness for some is born from another’s loss. Paris, Texas is about parenthood and sacrifice—loving someone so completely that you’ll pay the penance of never seeing him/her again. And no one pretends it could happen any other way.