Criterion // 1984 // 147 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // January 26th, 2010
A place to pick up the pieces.
Traveling the long and lonely roads of the American Southwest can be wonderful or scary, liberating or confining, or all of that at once. No matter what, it is truly beautiful. Director Wim Wenders (Kings of the Road) captures the complexity of the landscape in the opening moments of Paris, Texas. Whether in the big city or the big country, Wenders remains consistently aware of the importance of giving his characters room to breathe and room for his audience to take in the conflicts that situations present. This is the director's best film, a piece of art that lives as its own work, yet at the same time, encapsulates his artistic vision.
Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, Wild at Heart) has walked the Texas/Mexico border for four years, never speaking, only moving, until one day in Terlingua, TX he finally collapses. The doctor treating him finds a slip of paper with the phone number of his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan), a billboard painter from Los Angeles. Walt figured Travis was dead and, relieved but pretty steamed, he travels out to get him and find some answers. Those answers don't come easily, however. Only in time will Travis accept what happened between he and his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski, Tess), and discover why the road won't end until he finds her.
When we first encounter Travis, he is both an enigmatic figure and completely familiar. He is silent and suffers some form of amnesia (whether that's self-induced is never made clear). We know nothing about him, but the stoic wanderer is commonplace in westerns, so we immediately identify with the character. The fissured wrinkles in his face represent the countless miles the man has walked, his sun-cured face a picture of sadness and loss. His past is unknown, but that background isn't necessary. Harry Dean Stanton, in the best performance of his fine career, makes us care about him through his eyes and motions. It's an iconic character and a perfect portrayal. Though Sam Sheppard, who wrote the screenplay with Wenders, was originally slated in the role, I can think of nobody more perfectly suited than Stanton to play Travis. With his hardened exterior and his tender, almost lilting voice, he is the embodiment of the conflicted American male, full of emotion and pain, but unable to express any of it. By the time Travis utters his first word, "Paris," almost thirty minutes into the film, we already empathize completely with the character. As he speaks, slowly and carefully at first, his mystery begins to unfold. He holds back information until he is emotionally prepared to deal with it. His journey is so compelling because of this, and the film's methodical pace reflects the long struggle that Travis endures.
Great as he is, Paris, Texas is much more than Harry Dean Stanton as Travis. This film is the total package, where performance, story, and production mesh together to make something profoundly beautiful. Each character is complete in its own way, though they pass in and out of Travis's journey without much fanfare.
Dean Stockwell has a very difficult role as Walt, especially at the beginning. Because Travis is all together silent, Stockwell is acting to a wall. He acts, there is no reaction, and he is visibly frustrated. When Travis finally speaks, Walt looks more relieved than anything to have a conversation, and Stockwell's performance is so natural that I can't help but feel that the actor was just as relieved to have somebody to play off of. Through Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clément, Toute une nuit), Travis is re-acclimated from the feral state in which he was found into at least a semblance of how he once lived. Nothing is going to heal the damage in him, but through their incredible patience, they build him back up. Thus, they feel understandably betrayed when Travis leaves abruptly, taking his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), with him to Houston to find Jane. When Travis is done with something, however, he leaves. After they help him back into society, Walt and Anne have outlived their usefulness, including the care of Hunter, and his wandering soul cannot stay.
On their journey from L.A. to Houston, Travis starts to accept his paternal role. Father and son begin to bond as Travis sees parts of himself in Hunter. But Travis isn't healed; connecting with his son is only part of what he must do. The other part involves a peep show booth in Houston, and this final destination is the emotional center of the film. This is where Travis must face his emotions, his mistakes, and Jane, the true love of his life. Their conversation, told in two monologues from either side of a one-way mirror, is a stunning piece of cinema, sad and beautiful and expertly performed by both Stanton and Kinski. It's one of the finest single scenes I've ever witnessed and is, alone, worth the entire journey the film takes us on.
As a road movie, arguably the last great road movie, the journey is as important as the destination for the audience, if not for Travis. He is too obsessed with his past to notice the beauty of where he's traveled, but we do not carry this burden and can enjoy the majesty of the American Southwest. Robby Müller's cinematography is brilliant. Unless you've traveled through the area, much of it doesn't seem real. I was suspicious that the opening scene, filmed in Big Bend National Park, was actually a matte painting, but Wenders is sure to have Stanton walk deep into the frame, until he nearly disappears, proving that what we see is real. Likewise, the deep red skies and the marshmallow clouds of the West Texas sunsets seem to be fabricated, but when you see such things for yourself, you realize just how astounding such a landscape can be. Wenders focuses his story on these images as much as the plot itself and we find both a suffocating isolation and a beautiful comfort in the land, something akin to what Travis feels as he travels through it. On top of all of this is Ry Cooder's score. Improvised while watching the film himself, his slide guitar work is an indelible part of the film; no traditional score could possibly work for it. The sparse, disconnected guitar strains echo the pain that Travis feels while setting its own tone with the landscape, both in the country and in the city.
While the original DVD of Paris, Texas was a much-needed release, this 2-disc set from Criterion is a massive upgrade. The image looks pristine, just shy of reference quality, and it is amazing. The landscapes are perfectly clear, with brilliant depth and incredible detail. The sound is an even bigger upgrade from the original version, with a high-quality surround remix that helps Cooder's score rise to the prominence it deserves. It comes through in all channels, enveloping the viewer in its simple beauty. Many of the extra features are ported over from that old version, but that makes them no less essential. The audio commentary with Wenders is one of the best you'll find. He's rife with stories and information, all of which illuminate the spectacular intricacies of the film. He's very proud of his film, and that comes through clearly here. Likewise, these feelings come to the surface through a series of interviews with Wenders, Stanton, and many of the principle cast and crew of the film. Everybody involved recognizes, without coming across as arrogant, that this is one of the highlights of their respective careers. Some deleted scenes give a little more depth to the film, but are not necessary. We finish off with a still gallery of Wender's location shooting, and a comprehensive liner booklet that fills in many of the holes that the features on the disc do not cover.
Paris, Texas is a near perfect film in every way. It's difficult to think of a single thing that could be improved. This is a testament to the years of labor Wim Wenders put into the ideas he presents here, as well as a group of performers who revel in the freedom such a project gave them. Intensely personal and profoundly beautiful, everybody owes it to themselves to see this film, especially given the superiority of Criterion's set.
This is an all-time favorite. Of course it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery