The film opens with a mysterious figure. Not too unlike someone from the Old West, but less mythical, more contemporary: a skinny guy (Harry Dean Stanton) in a beard, a baseball cap, a suit. He wanders into some seedy bar on the outskirts of civilization (or west bumble-hell Texas) and collapses. He's awoken by some German doctor who finds a card in his pocket, and it's for a man in Los Angeles - the bearded man's brother. This man, Walt (Dean Stockwell), comes out to Texas to find him and bring him back to some kind of civilization. Travis, soon thereafter sans beard but still a mustache, can't really remember where he was coming from, or quite where he was going except... yeah, there was this town, called Paris. Not Paris, Paris, but Paris, Texas (this quasi-joke comes up as part of an anecdote Travis has regarding his father), and he has a small lot of land on an abandoned lot that he owns. But really where he needs to go home is to his son, Hunter, who is now 7 and hasn't seen his father since he was 3. Neither can really remember each other when they see one another, though the bond is there, rekindled a little as it is, basically, a sweet little kid.
Yet it's here, typing this and pondering the movie more, that it is one of the most tragic tales of family outside of a Bergman film. More to the point, perhaps it was Ozu's big-time influence on Wenders that made things seem so... simple watching it. And yet it's a simplicity that covers over the complexity of what's really going on, how deep the wounds go. This isn't usually what one sees in Ozu, such deep pain, and it's surely more in line with Shepherd, who is renown for his plays about familial dysfunction. But Paris, Texas has the haunting, or haunted, quality of a down-and-out blues song. This might explain the Ry Cooder music, with a slide guitar that emphasizes, yes, the West and Texas, but also, again, loss. The feeling of mystery about Travis' circumstances, where he's been for four years, aren't of quite as much of a concern as what got him to start off on a four-year lost-world odyssey in the first place.
The climax of the story is likely to be most satisfying on the surface as a way of explaining what happened, but that's not what makes that last half hour so overwhelming. It's... everything. The direction of those scenes where Travis finally meets up with his former love and the real mother of their child, Jane (Natassja Kinski), is very crisp and the shot compositions are framed to such a point that everything that matters is the emotion and the characters' faces. The cinematography by one of the greats, Robby Mueller, gives subtle but distinct colors on Travis talking on one side and the bright light (at first) on Jane on the other side, and then the much sadder/contemplative state when the room goes dark and the two can see one another. And of course the writing, made up of the kind of monologuing that could be over-written and stagey but for Shepherd is handled with such intimacy and detail where one pictures everything that Travis says.
Yet for how much I adored the story, and how Wenders found a way to give equal time to the wonderment of dry and vast images of Texas and the open road - and to allow Mueller to use a painterly eye for lighting that is both naturalistic and ethereal like a not-quite-noir- of the eyes and part of a face in a rearview mirror on top of the screen and the road filling the rest of the frame, the melancholy state of the shots AND to the story that needs to be told, it's for me an actor's movie. The backdrop is sincere and important, as it's an America of emptiness and decay and people who are trying to make it and sometimes just can't. And it's this that Shepherd places his characters, and that the actors fulfill them all so richly.
I should just get on with it as, despite as good as Dean Stockwell is and for her few moments Aurore Clement as well, and how spellbinding and (when her outer layer of her "profession" is let go) tender Kinski makes Jane, it's the Harry Dean Stanton show for me. There isn't a person that I know, and I certainly wouldn't want to know anyone but, who finds Stanton less than likable. He's one of the character actors that defined the past fifty years, from biker movies to Two-Lane Blacktop to Wild at Heart and as recently as Big Love. But his work as Travis is what sets him apart as something of an underrated national treasure alongside someone like George Carlin. To be sure Shepherd can get a lot of credit for the shaping of the character on the page, or Wenders for having the wherewithal to reach out to Stanton for what is for him a kind of rarity: a lead performance. But damn it all if it isn't the performance that makes it such a complete work of art. And it is.
Travis is such a broken being, but not a "bad" person, at least at the state he's in when the film is set. The whole thing urges for a repeat viewing, or multiple viewings, to really get deeper into what Stanton is doing with this character. I knew that every little look or hesitation, or that moment early in the motel room where he looks at a mirror and then just leaves to go walk back out in the desert, was important, but it's all apart of a greater work here.
Travis has an odd way about him, or just a little off-kilter, like the way he sings Mexican folk songs as he washes dishes and puts away shoes shined, or tries to be the "rich" dad by advice from the housekeeper. But the tragedy is there with Stanton in his performance, and comes out only fuller still in the second half of the movie. By the time the story leads to the scenes in Houston, where confrontation and an attempt at redemption of some kind happen, Stanton is on top of it, alive in every frame, even when he seems to look subdued. It's one of those performances you want to take home and marry.
This heaping of praise shouldn't diminish what else is great here (one might think I was comparing him to Daniel Day Lewis or something, which I'm not, that is not yet). Paris, Texas takes a beautiful, sobering look at what happens with the ghosts of memory past, and that it's unpredictable in how it makes its turns, not in bold melodramatic strokes but more reasoned, realistically simple and sometimes painful ways, is brave to boot. You feel shaken by it once it ends, yet it never goes so far over the top into hysterics. It is what is promises to be: a modern Western-Drama character study that eschews most of the genre requirements, directed by a European with a precise sense of visual space and time, and what haunts us and terrifies us the most: losing it all.