Paris, Texas review – Harry Dean Stanton unforgettable in haunting classic

After almost 40 years, Wim Wenders’s Euro-Americanist masterpiece Paris, Texas feels as richly mysterious and mesmeric as ever: an outsider’s connoisseur-perspective on the US with its wailing, shuddering slide guitar by Ry Cooder which became as much of an instant classic as Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It mimicked the desolate beauty of the Texas desert and the micro-landscape of the star’s own weatherbeaten face. He was, of course, the unforgettably gaunt and haunted Harry Dean Stanton, who at 58 years old, and after a lifetime of self-effacing supporting roles, suddenly leapfrogged mere star status to become an icon.

Paris, Texas is a beautiful-looking, beautiful-sounding film, although I have to confess to being unsure about the ending (reportedly one of a number considered by Wenders and his co-screenwriters Sam Shepard and LM Kit Carson). However, when I first saw it, I was hugely relieved about the way it turned out for Nastassja Kinski. I had been very worried about a sudden, final reappearance from Slater, the sinister, tough-looking guy that runs the peep show, played by Jarmusch regular John Lurie.

Stanton is Travis, a dishevelled guy seen at first walking surreally alone through the parched west Texas desert in a shabby suit and tie, mute and clearly in some traumatised state, agonised by a secret history of guilt and shame. Finally, he is picked up by his longsuffering brother Walt, a wonderful performance from Dean Stockwell. Walt has, these four years, been looking after Travis’s infant son Hunter (Hunter Carson, son of the writer) after Travis suddenly vanished at the same time as his wife, Jane (Kinski).

What the hell has been happening all this time? Walt and his French wife Anne (Aurore Clément) take Travis into their home, if not yet their hearts; and he lives with them in suburban LA, hardly more than a kid himself. Travis opens up about his dreamy long-forgotten plan to live in the little town of Paris, Texas where he was conceived, and he gets it together sufficiently to take Hunter on a road trip with him to Houston where he has discovered Jane is living. It is there he finds her working in a sleazy and somewhat bizarre peep show, a Lynchian touch.

Related: Wim Wenders: ‘When Paris, Texas won Cannes it was terrible’

The lonely geographies of Texas and the unglamorous Los Angeles suburbs are superbly caught, and Wenders and Shepard indulge a love of motels with their heartbreaking neon signs about TV and air-con; this movie did much to make motels the signifier of roadside reality and the American heartland, and rescue them from the taint of Psycho and the Bates motel. Walt, incidentally, has a job creating billboards, the occasion for some witty scene-setting: he shows us a poster of Barbra Streisand’s face, distorted and foreshortened like the skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors. There’s a great extended scene as Travis walks across a highway bridge to the accompaniment of a male voice ranting hysterically. Is it the radio? No: it’s a disturbed guy screaming into the traffic whom Travis has been calmly approaching this whole time, and passes with a casual pat on the shoulder.

Finally, there are those amazing, climactic scenes in the peep show, a metaphor for Travis and Jane’s alienation from each other. Kinski has the supremely difficult job of showing us Jane’s backstory in just two scenes. As Travis starts telling her their story (without revealing who he is), Kinski shows how Jane is at first bemused, then startled, then moved by what she still thinks is this story’s fortuitous resemblance to her own, and then her devastation at the truth.

The sordid loneliness and weird alienation of these sequences, coming after the more reassuring story of domestic comfort and father-son bonding, delivers the film’s enduring impact. It is an eerie, sad story whose meaning disappears over the vast horizon as if on a highway heading away through the desert.

• Paris, Texas is released on 29 July in cinemas and on 5 August on Curzon Home Cinema.