The opening scene of Paris, Texas is amid a vast desert in Texas, a lone wander with his bright red baseball cap intrudes upon the rustic landscape. It’s an odd place to take a stroll with the searing heat, lack of natural sustenance and absence of water. He carries a jug of water at his side, taking one last gulp before leaving it behind and striking off for the civilized world. He wanders into a gas station and takes a handful of ice, crunching and sucking on it before passing out on the floor. The proprietor expresses shock at grizzly man on his floor, a man whose clearly lost.
As the film unfolds this opening scene begins to have new significance. It’s not simply a beautifully desolate landscape upon which to open the film but a reflection of the wander’s soul. He’s lost himself not in a bustling city of people or a beautiful wood but in a countryside as desolate, coarse and barren as his own soul. One look at Harry Dean Stanton’s face and we can see the landscape has etched itself onto his face, the emptiness of his life in every crevice and the distant look in his eyes is a well into troubling past.
This wander’s name is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man missing from the world for over four years. His brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), makes his way down to Texas and the two travel back to Los Angeles. Walt prods Travis for what happened to leave him in such a state, but Travis remains silent. Whatever happed, Travis has left an indelible impression on his family. He has a son named Hunter (Hunter Carson) who doesn’t remember him and has been brought up believing Walt and his French wife Anne (Aurore Clement) are his real mother and father. As Travis slowly returns to the world he attempts to connect with his son and wonders what has become of his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski).
Instead of being a drama, the film takes an almost opposite approach. Instead of being tense and foreboding the film is slow and lingering. The actors don’t use bombastic voices and defiant motions but are restricted to soft refrains and world-weary looks. In this way the film is almost an anti-drama, avoiding any kind of tension or confrontation. And when the confrontations finally do come the film separates the players physically and the confrontations usually occur over the phone.
The film takes it time, slowly weaving it way through the various landscapes that the film takes place in. It’s more interested in reflecting on mood, musing over feeling and contemplating on past events. At times it seems that nothing significant has happened, in part because all the action has happened and all that’s left is the broken pieces of a man’s past. It’s so far gone he doesn’t even seem to remember what exactly happened that’s left him in this state.
But by the end it’s clearly changed. Travis has once again left his mark upon his family, for some it seems bright and hopeful, for others he has likely brought their world down around their ears. There’s no easy solution or satisfying conclusion after what has taken place long before the events of the films. This is not the tale of Travis’s redemption or reconciliation but his reconnection to the world.
For four years he’s wandered but now he’s slowly working his way back into society. And as he rediscovers the range of human emotions he looks beyond himself. In one scene he’s walking across a bridge spanning across the highway. On the other end is a man yelling out a message of impending doom upon the earth. It’s a speech of passion, anger, indignation and, most of all, fear. Travis stops for a moment, looks at this angry man and then passes, lightly touching a comforting hand on his shoulder. It’s such a simple motion in what seems to be an ancillary scene but for one moment Travis has empathized with someone else, and if only for a moment connected with them.
And sometimes that’s all that matters, that one moment of connection, however brief. In a world that is constantly finding new ways to make people more and more distant it’s easier to live in isolation and like Travis to lose ourselves in that vast desert. Yes, the real world is one of pain with hard choices. Yes, we can often do more harm than good in the world. And, yes, sometimes we find that our hopes and dreams cave in under the weight of reality. But if we can make a connection, for however brief, maybe that’s enough.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing