by Ryan Swen
Throughout the years, a great many auteurs have sought to tackle the idea of “America”, which is often cast as a near-mythic landscape filled with iconography and populated by broken souls. Of these myriad efforts, German director Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas is the strongest, most immaculate example I have seen, a drama of expatriates tied inextricably to the numerous locales of the Land of the Free. There are many, many reasons for the film’s raw, quiet, and heart-rending beauty–Ry Cooder’s twanging guitar score, Robby Müller’s expansive cinematography, the perfection of Sam Shepard’s screenplay–but just as key is the impeccably assembled cast. Everyone is vital, especially Nastassja Kinski and Dean Stockwell as the protagonist’s wife and brother, respectively, but Paris, Texas soars on the contribution of Harry Dean Stanton, the ubiquitous character actor, who plays the film’s hero Travis.
Of course, it is impressive for any actor to carry such an emotionally wrought film by themselves for large portions of the runtime, but in this case it is even moreso because of what is required by Wenders’ and Shepard’s characterization. Travis functions as essentially two characters. Not as two separate people with differing psychologies and backgrounds (Travis remains Travis throughout) but as two performances, different in terms of temperament and especially expression. Each one holds up roughly half of the film, but even though the first is likely better remembered (as it makes for a more striking image) both prove equally devastating and important to Wenders’ vision of “America.”
The first, more iconic one is of Travis the mute. Introduced walking around in the middle of the desert, he manages to both evoke (with his steady stride) and subvert the idea of the Western, that most American of genres. Throughout the first third of the film or so, he is virtually silent: Stanton doesn’t utter a single word until 26 minutes into the film. By this point, Travis’s appearance has completely changed, as his ragged suit and red hat have been swapped out for more conventional clothes and his beard has been completely shaved.
In a way, these transformations both are and aren’t a turning point for Travis. They both take place on a long road trip home–his brother Walt drives him when Travis resurfaces after disappearing for a few years–and consequently Stanton portrays the changes as he gets closer and closer to rejoining civilization with a curious interiority. After the two men reach Los Angeles and Travis reconnects with his son Hunter, Stanton slowly assumes his second performance, his monosyllabic responses gradually shifting to considered, heartfelt statements of not inconsiderable length and the obvious physical and mental weight on him becomes something less evident and more inscrutable.
Stanton is such a beautiful actor that the viewer wouldn’t usually doubt his ability to convey these two strikingly different performances, but simply putting the two together in the same film (and marrying it to an extremely credible narrative and character progression) has more than double the effect of either one on its own. By the finale of the film, as Travis finally speaks his mind in an agonizingly cathartic monologue, his dual performance is complete. Paris, Texas is a triumph on all levels, but Stanton’s performance is a feat that probably could have only been pulled off by such a seemingly idiosyncratic but multi-faceted character actor.
Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a volunteer at Scarecrow. He writes at TaipeiMansions and tweets at @swen_ryan, and his work can be found at Seattle Screen Scene and the Brooklyn Magazine Film Section.