It took two viewings, a few years apart, for me to fully appreciate the power of this parable from Wings of Desire director Wim Wenders, who is working from a screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard. As a story of grace and forgiveness—as well as the human limitations in offering each—the movie functions as a laconic reimagining of the biblical tale of the prodigal son.
In Paris, Texas, we get a prodigal father—or at least a man who has turned his back on his family in pursuit of something else on the horizon. Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis, a dusty and bedraggled wanderer who stumbles into a dead-end town at the edge of the Texas desert. He’s taken to a clinic, where they find a piece of paper with the name and number of his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt hasn’t seen Travis in four years, not since he and his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) independently disappeared, leaving their young son Hunter (Hunter Carson) in Walt’s care.
From their we get a story of some healing and a certain amount of reconciliation, but never in a way that feels easy, rushed, or false. Or even complete, given where the film leaves us. Paris, Texas takes its time soaking in its story—and in America. Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller are both European, and their vision of the United States is one of vast landscapes and fluorescent signs, the latter being almost as visually poetic as the former. (The rich hues and beneficent skies register as blessings on the characters’ efforts.) Ry Cooder’s music, meanwhile, sounds like a classic Western score that’s been left in the sun all day—too tired, too exhausted to be in much of a hurry.
As Walt, Stockwell paints a miraculous portrait of unconditional love, similar to that of the prodigal’s father in the Bible. It’s a delight to watch how he handles Travis—casually, affectionately, practically (“Where’d you find that beard?”)—yet I’m glad the movie also gives him an eventual moment of exasperation as he and his own wife, Anne (Aurora Clement), try to negotiate what Travis’ return means for them as Hunter’s pseudo-parents (again, the human limit).
Stanton, meanwhile, earns your patience the first moment his face fills the frame. With a mug like his, you almost don’t need to do any acting—and this is certainly a minimalist turn, especially as Travis at first seems nearly catatonic. But watch for the little tells: the way he briefly makes eye contact when Walt says, “We thought you were dead boy,” or when he closes his eyes—and holds them closed for an extra beat—when Jane appears in the old home movie Walt shows.
And then there is the climactic reunion scene between Travis and Jane, whom he eventually tracks down at a peep show where customers watch women through one-way windows in private booths. All the creative powers at work in the film brilliantly coalesce. Stanton—suddenly loquacious—weaves a long yarn of confession over the phone in the booth, while Kinski’s face transitions, in almost imperceptible degrees, from playful performer to confused young woman to shattered soul. Wenders has Travis turn away from Jane’s window to face the camera, employing a split-diopter shot that keeps both of their faces in focus. Müller lights it like a single vision of heaven and hell, while Cooder sneaks in a bit of that lonely score. The sequence is one of cinema’s great stunners. For the life of me I’ll never understand why, on first watch, it didn’t stun me more.