Our conflicted and silent protagonist Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) emerges from the desert like a mirage. Dressed in an old suit that hangs loose on him and a red trucker hat, an outfit only Stanton could don with such earnest, he reenters civilization in a trance. Upon wandering into a roadside bar, Travis passes out from exhaustion and awakes in the care of a scamming doctor. With only silence to offer and little on him in the way of personal affects, the doctor manages to find a phone number on Travis that belongs to his brother. Travis’s brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), hasn’t seen nor heard from Travis for four years, neither has anyone else.
It is revealed that Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) are the acting parents of Travis’s seven year old son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), has also been absent from the boy’s life. Anne is reluctant towards Travis’s reemergence as the couple has formed a loving parental bond with young Hunter. Walt’s concern for his estranged brother is enough to prompt him to fly to Texas to retrieve him. When he arrives he finds Travis wandering away from the clinic and is not recognized by his confused brother at first when he pulls over to pick him up. The chemistry between Stockwell and Stanton is subdued, but very warm against the backdrop of the desolate desert landscape. Walt’s patience begins to wear thin though with Travis’s silence as he tries to elicit the details regarding his disappearance, which Travis never reveals. Despite the guarded distance Travis maintains between them, the brothers eventually find their way back to Los Angeles.
Perhaps feeling more alien than he did in his wandering absence, Travis struggles to find a place for himself in his brother’s family. He does what he can to avoid being burdensome around the house, including cleaning the dishes and polishing the family’s footwear in an OCD fashion. He spends his nights sitting on the edge of the home’s backyard in the hills staring out upon the city and the busy freeway. The kindhearted Anne tries her best to welcome Travis into their lives and integrate him into Hunter’s life. Hunter is a sweet and well behaved child that attempts to make sense of his own abnormal situation. In a tender scene with the reunited Hendersons gathered around an old home movie, Hunter refers to both Travis and Walt as “dad.” Slowly Hunter becomes more comfortable around the reserved and timid Travis and the two form an unexpected bond.
Anne briefs Travis on a correspondence she’s had with Jane and reveals to him that she has been depositing money into a bank account for Hunter in Houston. Wanting to reconnect with her, Travis sets off for Houston with an eager Hunter riding shotgun, stopping along the way to phone Walt and Anne to let them know Hunter is safe. Along the way the two become more acquainted and united in the search for Hunter’s biological mother.
Paris, Texas is definitely a homegrown tale of a family trying to pick up the pieces, but also one of self-identification. The script was penned by veteran actor Sam Shepard whom I’d had no idea was also a screenwriter until I saw the film. He gives us a realistic, and sentimental, but hardly saccharine depiction of the human condition within a familial context. Within a short frame of time, Travis is thrust from elusive isolation into the confines of civilization and the painful complexities of human connection. He consummately avoids the latter with few words and frequent moments alone. Harry Dean Stanton is perfectly nuanced while being completely accessible as an American man navigating himself through the lives of those he cares for. This is an ambivalent film that’s intention is to be neither punitive nor pardoning, but to offer a resonant and genuine reckoning with it’s characters.