Wednesday, March 7, 2012

100 Movies - No. 68: Paris, Texas

68. Paris, Texas (1984)
Drama, 147 minutes
Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski and Dean Stockwell

The first thing to mention about Paris, Texas is how quickly the opening scene establishes a mood. We are shown sweeping shots of a desert to the sound of Ry Cooder's haunting guitar. A man who we will later know as Travis (Stanton) comes into view. He looks like he's been wandering for days. He's wearing a red cap and jeans and his beard looks several weeks old. He wanders into an isolated bar and collapses.

A local clinic tends to his injuries and contacts his brother, Walt (Stockwell), who flies from Los Angeles to collect him. It's been four years since the two last met and Walt had wondered whether Travis was still alive. Travis doesn't speak during this meeting and Walt has to show extreme patience while he waits for Travis to begin explaining what happened. In a sense, the audience is in the same situation. For almost 30 minutes, the film plays out like a total mystery.

Walt wants to fly Travis home because he took in his child as his own when Travis disappeared. Travis insists that they drive, and on using the same rental car Walt drove when he picked him up. We learn that Travis has bought some land in Paris, Texas, but he can't remember why. It's clear that Travis has been through a traumatic experience and has attempted to block out those memories.

Travis makes two important decisions during the story:

The first could spawn all manner of debate about whether it is right or wrong. His mental health is in question, and yet he makes a decision that could drastically alter someone's life; or perhaps the lives of several people. You'll have to decide for yourself whether his actions were justified.

The second decision comes as a result of a meeting with a person who used to be important in his life. In the final 25 minutes of the film, we are shown a very unusual conversation. It's tense, emotional, brave, heartbreaking and elegant all at once. It's this conversation which elevates the film to the level of greatness. The ending is almost impossible to predict early in the film, and that's something I find refreshing. Here's a film with an idea and it's perfectly executed.

Harry Dean Stanton has played so many colorful characters over the years, but Paris, Texas gives him his most significant role. He gives Travis depth and the film wouldn't work without him. His appearance and haunted expression fit the character and his performance is quiet, but powerful.

Nastassja Kinski's performance as Jane is a revelation. Watch the subtle emotions on her face and hear how expressive her voice can be as she responds to Stanton's monologue. I'm also impressed by Hunter Carson's realistic portrayal of a young boy.

It's always interesting to see things from a different viewpoint and Wim Wenders shows us how he views America. The screenplay and Ry Cooder's score work together well. This is the kind of film that seems timeless. It's a human story set in a world so large that its characters are in danger of becoming lost, but they somehow find their way.

I had to make a choice of my own in this review. Should I give away the whole story so that I could discuss some of the best scenes, or should I say just enough to set the mood? I hope that I have said enough to make you interested in seeing the film. If you do, maybe you'll understand why I withheld so much information.

If you like Paris, Texas:

I'm going to recommend another film by Wim Wenders. Wings of Desire is a German language film set in Berlin. It concerns two angels who observe human behavior and have done so for centuries. They sometimes intervene in subtle ways to shape events in people's lives. It's a quiet, reflective piece, but extremely powerful. Bruno Ganz is superb as usual, but you'll be amazed to see how Peter Falk and Nick Cave fit into the equation.

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