A penitent man passes through the desert, from oblivion and back to life. He blew up his family, he was a bad man; he drove his wife away with his jealous rage and hastened to the bottle. Travis Henderson wanders back into his life unexpectedly, his brother Walt picks him up from nowhere in the Mojave Desert. What follows is the slow, tender, and heartbreaking story of what happened to Travis and why his family broke apart, like a ship in rough seas.
Much has been written on Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas. It has been on my personal watch list for nigh on ten years and like many ‘great movies’ it stood high on its pedestal. This film is panoply of striking western vistas. The empty landscapes come alive with colour, from Travis’ red ball-cap against the barren desert, to roadside rest stops signs. The sunbaked plains of Texas have never looked so beautiful, and startlingly alive. This starting is mirrored in Travis’ reappearance: the film calls out to us. As if to say even the most hopeless cases can swirl, flow, and give new life.
The most wonderful moments occur when Travis tracks down his wife, Jane. Now living in Houston Jane works at a strip club where she talks to men through two-way glass and sits in weird simulacra of ‘coffee shop’, or ‘hotel’. Travis slowly tells her the story of their marriage, he turns his chair away from her in his telling, and she cannot see him through the glass. Jane quickly understands who is telling her this story, tears fall from her eyes. Travis recounts his extreme love for her, his desire to be with her every moment. He recounts how that big love turned sour with jealousy, and fear. He feared she would not love him, and in his pain he lashed out, unable to understand or process his disordered feelings. Travis’ only desire now is to reunite Jane with their son, and to then disappear again. He tells Jane where to find Hunter, Travis leaves a recording for his son explaining his actions. Travis returns to his penance, heavy with the knowledge of his own failings.
The most remarkable way Paris, Texas succeeds is in its empathic understanding of its characters. It would be easy to judge Travis, and Jane, and to punish them. Instead there is a wide breadth for understanding, and we the audience are open to them as real and flawed people. The filmmaking speaks to that as well. When Travis is telling his story to Jane the camera lingers on her. We see her beauty, and we see her as Travis sees her. In that we also see a very young woman, a conflicted young mother, and a stilted wife. We see and understand her craving for independence, as well as her longing for her child.
Paris, Texas is a gentle film about the jagged edges of life, but it no way is it easy emotionally. The plight of these characters is deeply felt, beautifully filmed, and indelibly human.