Updated: Jan 15
To paraphrase Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the best moments in watching movies are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – you'd thought was special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead, as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
German director Wim Wenders’ 1984 movie Paris, Texas is precisely one of those experiences that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. It certainly has for me. Both his immigrant’s sense of wonder and amazement at the wide open spaces of the southern American landscape, and the personal stories of those who travel through them, are something that, as an immigrant myself, deeply resonate with me.
A brief word of warning, if you’ve not seen the movie yet, beware of spoilers!
The movie opens with fatigue and desperation. Travis Henderson, clinically portrayed by the always excellent Harry Dean Stanton, wanders the desert deep in the heart of Texas. He strides with conviction, but he’s at the end of his water and the birds are starting to circle. Ry Cooder’s atmospheric score augments the contradiction of Travis’ extreme loneliness as he makes his way through the stunning landscape. It’s beautiful, but something’s wrong. We know nothing of Travis except he’s headed somewhere with purpose. But where and why, not even Travis knows. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as unknown routes and destinations are a recurring theme throughout. On the journey we get to indulge in some of Wenders’ most memorable visual love letters to the open road.
Travis stumbles across a small outpost literally in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted and dying from thirst, he attempts to drink from a long dead faucet. A kind local soul eventually rescues him and calls the number on his brother Walt’s business card, the only semi-recognizable piece of identification Travis still has with him. His brother, played with humility and grace by Dean Stockwell (who will star in David Lynch’s Dune later in 1984), drives across the country from his home in Los Angeles. We then discover that Travis has been missing for over four years in Mexico, and in that time, Walt and his wife have taken in Hunter, Travis’ young son.
The journey back home is nowhere near simple, however. Suffering from acute mental trauma, Travis is unable to speak, won’t eat, and repeatedly attempts to resume his journey alone. Even so, Walt manages to convince Travis to come back to Los Angeles. Travis remains mute for much of the journey, sometimes to Walt’s frustration, but the familiar cinematic framework of our two main characters confined to the car’s interior with very little in the way of distraction on the highway leads to some wonderful, if mostly one-way exchanges. Additionally, during their travels, we’re treated again to the visual feast of traveling across the south western landscape, mainly at night, through the fluorescent, nicotine lens of truck stops, convenience stores and gas stations. You can practically smell the diesel-laced melancholy in every shot.
Once Travis reunites with Hunter, who’s understandably confused about who his real dad is, they begin to slowly reconnect. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Travis walks Hunter home from school in a truly tender display of father and son bonding through play. We see Travis learn to be a dad again, and Hunter learn to trust someone he’s only known in bedtime stories. But through it all, and conspicuous in her absence, is the specter of Travis’ estranged wife, Jane. Embarking on another long road trip, Travis and Hunter try to find her based on a scant number of clues. Again, Wenders indulges us in some truly breathtaking scenes of the American highway, punctuated by rest stops under overpasses, and some wonderful conversations between father and son that closely foreshadow events to come. Throughout it all, we still don’t know what happened between Jane and Travis, but we do know that he needs to bring closure and finally reunite his son with his mother.
Travis eventually finds Jane in a seedy part of Houston, working in an adult entertainment establishment that allows its customers to talk to women acting out specific stereotypically submissive roles through a one-way mirror and telephone. The women, and after a number of false starts, Travis finds Jane, portrayed with genuine sincerity and tenderness by Nastassja Kinski in her pink sweater, one of the defining images of the film. After a brief conversation, Travis leaves Jane without any resolution, but Jane recognizes his voice. Travis and Hunter spend the night in a nearby hotel while the downtown traffic of late-night Houston swirls below, and Travis resolves to go back the next day.
Upon returning, Travis tells Jane he just wants her to listen. We then hear what happened between the two of them. It is genuinely one of the most touching, heartbreaking, and tender moments you’ll ever see between two estranged lovers, and something viewers must experience for the first time without spoilers. Both Stanton and Kinski give outstanding performances that perfectly convey what went wrong between them, how Travis blames himself, and how he can never be with her again. Love will tear them apart again.
The film ends with Travis successfully reuniting Hunter and Jane from a distance, but then Travis takes off into the night, destination unknown. Face illuminated by the dashboard and the passing billboards, our drifter casts himself out into the darkness, and just like Nick tells us at the end of The Great Gatsby, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas takes us on a heartfelt and often painful odyssey of reunification through the romance of the American freeway. Those that find themselves on that journey are never sure of where they’re going or where they’ve been, but their love for each other is genuine, difficult, and long-lasting. It’s a film that will stay with you long after it ends, and repeated watching always turns up something new.