When viewed through a European lens, America tends to look like a strange and disorienting expanse stretching off to the horizon, a place so vast that a person could easily get swallowed whole. Movies like Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, and even Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys Go America are no doubt influenced by American Westerns; they put a particular emphasis on the landscape, and how its breadth and severity affect both its inhabitants and its visitors. Few directors have been more inspired by American culture than Germany's Wim Wenders, whose famed '70s "road trilogy" films (Alice In The Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings Of The Road) were basically European inflections on films like Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop. When he finally got the chance to capture America directly in 1984's Paris, Texas, Wenders accomplished something rare: He made a familiar landscape seem like uncharted territory.
Anchored to a beautiful Sam Shepard script, which eliminates the potential awkwardness of translation, Wenders starts with the blankest of slates: grizzled loner Harry Dean Stanton, who's wandering through a barren Texas desert. A man with no name, no known history, and no ability to speak, Stanton collapses in a border town, where a local doctor nurses him back to health and contacts his brother (Dean Stockwell), a billboard artist from Los Angeles. As it turns out, Stanton has been missing for four years, during which Stockwell and his wife (Aurore Clément) adopted Stanton's 7-year-old son (Hunter Carson) and raised him as their own. When Stanton recovers his memory and voice, he embarks on a quest to reunite his broken family, which involves abducting his son and driving to Houston to look for his long-lost wife (Nastassja Kinski). But the reasons behind his disappearance rest in a troubled past, which proves difficult to overcome without emotional consequences.
In the audio commentary on the new DVD, Wenders claims that the script was only partially finished before shooting, and the completed half was shot chronologically, which might explain the sense of discovery that makes the film so absorbing. Stanton remains an incomplete picture, as much to himself as to the audience, and Wenders and Shepard deliberately withhold the details, at least until a revelatory encounter in which Stanton and Kinski talk behind a two-way mirror. Usually relegated to supporting roles, where he's long been one of the finest character actors, Stanton disappears into the part in a way lead actors might not have dared, and it deepens the mystery surrounding his character. But Paris, Texas resonates as much for its backdrop as for anything going on in the foreground. Cued to a spare Ry Cooder score inspired by Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night," Wenders and first-rate photographer Robby Müller (Down By Law) evoke the gorgeous Texas sprawl as a reflection of the hero's barren, mournful spirit. When the film ends on a note of weary optimism, it feels like a hard-won miracle.