If I didn’t quite have the transcendental experience with Paris, Texas that so many moviegoers have, it’s certainly not the fault of Robby Müller’s cinematography. Sunsets, street lights, and motel signs have a richly saturated hue here that rivals any use of color I’ve seen on screen. Müller and director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) are both European, and their vision of America is one of vast landscapes and fluorescent signs, the latter being almost as visually poetic as the former.
The story itself, from a screenplay by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, traces the emotional healing of a nearly catatonic wanderer named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), who is found by his brother (Dean Stockwell) after a four-year disappearance. Re-introduced to his young son (Hunter Carson), Travis slowly comes back to the real world and eventually attempts to track down his wife (Nastassja Kinski), the apparent cause of his breakdown.
With a face like Stanton’s, you almost don’t need to do any acting.
With a face like Stanton’s, you almost don’t need to do any acting, and this is certainly a minimalist performance. (“You look like 40 miles of rough road,” Stockwell tells him.) Yet as good as Stanton is—especially in that moment when Travis is first reminded about his son and he responds with a slow, wet blink—as a character Travis often seems too beholden to the whims of the screenplay. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies he displays at the beginning (insisting on the same model rental car, lining up his brother’s family’s shoes) get conveniently dropped by the wayside as he warms up to his son. And the reunion with the Kinski character—which admittedly includes a bravura soliloquy sequence at the peep show where she works—is further complicated by the story’s need to give the child they share a “happy” ending (and one could argue how happy the boy or his mother will really be).
Perhaps I’m taking these characters too literally, however, when Shepard and Wenders mean for them to work more as allegories for ideas such as confession and forgiveness. In that sense, Paris, Texas has an undeniable power. There is certainly a sort of transcendence to be found in the sight of Travis, wearing those 40 miles of rough road on his face, finally finding a measure of peace.