In Paris, Texas, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is defined by the pain of the past. In the opening shot, the desolation of the desert surrounds him as his weary eyes gaze ahead. It’s clear he’s in deep pain, but as the film evolves, we discover that Travis has also left pain in his wake.
He’s abandoned his family, fallen off the face of the earth, and is presumed dead. His brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), eventually hears about Travis and attempts to bring his brother back into the world. But Travis has spent four years away, four years trying to forget the pain, and once he’s brought back into the world, he begins to remember the pain.
For a while it seems that to cope with the pain is to lose himself in other things. Walt brings Travis to his home in Los Angeles with his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) where Travis seems content to watch the airplanes land in the valley bellow or do small chores around the house. He begins tentatively reconnecting with his eight year old son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), neither of which remembers each other well. Yet while none of these things are bad, they cannot bring any closure or healing.
Therefore, father and son strike off on a journey to find the final member of their family: the mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski). Yet even this quest for restoration and redemption leaves pain in its wake. Ann and Walt are left devastated by losing Hunter, and while their story fades away in the final hour of the film, the film does remind the audience that this quest for redemption isn’t a completely pure or painless process.
If anything, the process is hard and painful. Hunter and Travis eventually do track down Jane, but Travis is wary about approaching her. He finds her as a stripper in one of those one way mirror setups. When he first confronts her as an anonymous client, he lashes out in anger at discovering what she does. Then he runs away to try to lose the pain in drink.
Travis comes to a literal crossroads, left Anne; right a new life with his son. He can cut his loses, ignore the root of the pain, and try to find happiness in raising his son. Or maybe he’ll do what Jane did, drop Hunter off at his brother’s house and disappear. In either case the result would bring Travis back to the same point of trying to ignore and forget. Hunter doesn’t bat an eye. “Left, Dad,” he says, while thumbing through the comics.
The scene that ensues is atypical of the rest of the film. After two hours of Travis saying very little, he pours out everything. He talks about the life they had, where it all went wrong, why he did what he did and why it all went wrong. He talks about their son. He says Hunter is waiting for her, that the two should be brought back together.
The film concludes with Jane and Hunter reunited while Travis walks to his truck in the parking lot and leaves. While Travis has brought some form of reconciliation to the pain he brought upon Jane, the film ends on a tragic note because there is no deep forgiveness. The pain is still there and Travis cannot get past it, perhaps in part because he cannot forgive himself for what he has done.
2 thoughts on “The Second Criterion: ‘Paris, Texas’”
For me, this is Wim Wenders’ best film. Truly gorgeous in its look as well as creating this evocative story of loss and redemption. Harry Dean Stanton should’ve gotten some recognition for that performance. The scene where he’s talking to Jane near the end of the film is truly heartbreaking to watch.
Yes, I usually tear up a bit in that scene. It’s one that probably shouldn’t work for a film. It’s all talking in a tiny space, but it’s so intimate and the performances are wonderful that I always find it a profound and moving sequence.