It begins with a mute amnesiac stumbling out of the desert. It ends with the same man back on the highway, everything he ever wanted having slipped through his fingers. Between these two points, Paris, Texas - Wim Wenders' undisputed masterpiece - builds into a quiet, tragic, beautifully shot film which reflects, in a manner that's at once hopeful and infinitely sad, on loss, discovery, redemption, and on knowing when and what to let to go.
Travis (Stanton) is the lonely, childlike wanderer; after four years of emotional and actual exile, he appears tramping through the desert in a dirty suit and a red baseball cap. Eventually he's picked up and taken to LA by his brother Walt (Stockwell), who with his wife (Clement) has been looking after Travis' seven-year-old son Hunter (Carson).
Slowly, Travis regains his memory. His relationship with Hunter rekindled, Travis and the boy hit the road for Houston where Travis hopes to find his estranged wife Jane (Kinski), but the story here is practically invisible. The events which set Travis on his mysterious journey of self-annihilation took place years ago, and the self he rediscovers departs without explanation. Paris, Texas is a film about distance rather than destination, realisation not resolution, and it's driven by the road itself.
By 1984 Wenders himself had been making and remaking road movies for a nearly a decade. A European obsessed with America and its great cinematic myths, his foreignness enabled him to approach the US from an oblique new angle, in the process recasting those familiar icons - the desert, the diner, the drifter - in a luminous new light. That's certainly the case here. Travis moves through a landscape in which every sign, hoarding and graffiti scrawl seems to comment on his own status as a man adrift in an alien nation. 'Together we make it happen' is the ironic - or is it? - slogan on an advertising billboard in the final scene as Travis leaves everything behind.
With his battered face, soft sad eyes and voice like gritty honey, Stanton gives a performance of still, silent, half-understood grief, which is at the same time playful, eccentric and strangely purposeful. Every aspect of the performance is brilliantly judged and finely tuned to the film's understated dilemma: Travis is a man running both away from and back to a domestic life which he himself destroyed.
Sparseness marks every aspect of Paris, Texas, but at the film's heart is an extraordinarily vivid, confessional speech, delivered by Travis via intercom to his wife in a peep show booth at a strip joint as she stares at her own reflection in a two-way mirror, unaware at first that it's Travis on the other side. "I knew these people," it begins. "These two people..."
Hopeful yet hopeless, intimate but anonymous, the scene - scribbled by Wenders and writer Sam Shepard during the shoot after they'd abandoned the original script - is a sequence of such woundingly raw power that neither Travis nor the film can quite come down from it. The ending - a mother and child reunion engineered by a father who's slipped, literally by now, out of the picture - feels like Travis' dazed response to his own returned memory. For Wenders, Travis is the hero of a modernist western, riding out into the sunset, but he might just as easily be called a coward, an angel or even a man with no name. For Jane, who never once sees her husband in the flesh, he's a ghost who might never have been there at all.
Snaking its way through the film is Ry Cooder's achingly sad slide guitar score - a series of compositions based around 'Dark Was The Night' by Blind Willie Johnson. (Cooder contributed the same track to Performance; Wenders built his own blues doc The Soul Of A Man round it too.) As has often been the case in Wenders' films, the landscape and the road are supporting players, but Cooder's soundtrack is the production's star, those eerie bent notes drifting away from the scale as Travis himself drifts away from the map.
An end-of-road movie in every sense, Paris, Texas is a film of quiet yet intensely focussed power. In refashioning the fables of the dusty west, Wenders' found a genuinely visionary form of filmmaking.