Staggering out of the desert sun like a less vengeful Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, Harry Dean Stanton steps into the shoes of one of the seminal, iconic, eighties characters. Travis Henderson, in his red baseball cap, battered suit and broken shoes sums up a decade of Americana in his purposeful stride, mournful stare and wholly confused brain. Alongside Blue Velvet (tied in here by a helpful Al from Quantum Leap, minus Ziggy), Paris, Texas paints the other side of eighties America with broad, delicate strokes that depict a land far away from Wall Street and communist paranoia.
Travis emerges in a small town you’ve probably never heard of (sic) in Texas with no memory of the past four years and an unwillingness to communicate. His brother, Walter (Dean Stockwell), comes to pick him up and together they return to his house in Los Angeles. Travis discovers his son, Hunter, who he abandoned four years ago has been practically adopted by Walter and his wife. Travis seeks to reconnect with his son and maybe track down Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski).
Paris, Texas is eye wateringly good to look at. Robby Muller and Wim Wenders fill a usually washed out landscape with primary colours; hazy purple sunsets, bright orange deserts, deep black tarmac and piercing blue skies are shot from angles that slowly reveal more and more of urban America’s encroachment onto nature. Texas looks like nowhere else on Earth, Alien and inhospitable, yet cities spring up in the windshield of driving cars or on the horizon. Pinnacles of steel and glass to match the tors and cliffs Travis is originally found amongst. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar score ebbs and flows as the story demands, reflecting both the film’s southern settings and the character’s broken hearts.
Travis starts out sad and confused, moves into touching and funny and ends up strong as a rock (and right). It’s a brilliant arc (sorry), paced perfectly and played out with such skill by Dean Stanton that multiple viewings reveal more and more. These craggy, hicky, worn and drawn guys are his stock in trade but Travis is somehow different and more. Three dimensional and so believable it’s a wonder you haven’t bumped into him in a bar.
By the end it’s doubtful whether Travis is even human, he feels more like an angel, sent to repair past mistakes and re-unite lost souls. That would explain his memory loss, his speechlessness at the start and certainly the film’s unwillingness to deal with Walter and Aurore’s loss of Hunter. The unification of the mother/son bond is the only concern here, overruling common sense at the cost of the lesser characters so we end up with a triptych. Travis, Hunter and Jane, not exactly together at the end but not far apart.
Perfect is a dangerous adjective to toss around when it comes to film, the never stopping march of time, public opinion and attitudes changing and well, sheer bloody mindedness can all skew a film’s worth but as it’s been 27 years since release then Paris, Texas is so close to being perfect you couldn’t squeeze a knife in there. Don’t try.