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Paris, Texas gave Harry Dean Stanton his first lead role. It's a masterpiece.

The late actor got his big break in 1984, when he starred in one of cinema’s greatest road movies.

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas
Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for September 24 through 30 is Paris, Texas (1984), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon and iTunes.

Movie lovers have spent the week mourning Harry Dean Stanton, who died last weekend at the age of 91 after a long, fruitful career working with some of the world’s best directors. Many had finished watching him reprise the role of trailer park owner Carl Rodd in Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Many more are now anticipating the Friday, September 29, release of Lucky with a poignant sense of urgency; Vanity Fair has called the upcoming film — which boasts Stanton in the lead as a 90-year-old atheist experiencing a sort of reverse crisis of faith — “a thinly veiled glimpse into what is essentially Stanton’s own life.”

For the first few decades of his career, Stanton was always cast as a supporting character. But that all changed when he was 58, and Sam Shepard discovered Stanton in a crowded bar and gave him the lead role in the 1984 film Paris, Texas, one of the greatest American road movies ever made, written by Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders.

Paris, Texas is the sort of film you can’t shake after you watch it. Reviewing the film after its 1984 release, Roger Ebert called it a “story of loss upon loss” and referred to the “miracle” of Stanton’s performance, a standout among strong showings from his co-stars Nastassja Kinski and Hunter Carson. In the Guardian in 2015, Guy Lodge described Stanton’s turn as “permanently, ever-retrievably embedded in my sense memory.”

Stanton was exactly the right choice for the lead role, a man named Travis Henderson who up and wanders out of the desert one day after having been missing for years. The movie isn’t about the mystery of his reappearance, though — or at least not exactly. After being revived from his travels and examined by a doctor, Travis is reunited with his brother and sister-in-law, who adopted his son Hunter after the boy’s mother Jane (Kinski) also went missing.

Natassja Kinski in Paris, Texas
Natassja Kinski in Paris, Texas.

Travis and Hunter eventually set off for Texas on a quest to find Jane, having lots of conversations along the way about both their own family and the bigger meaning of family and life. That makes Paris, Texas a road movie, the most quintessentially American genre of filmmaking and one that almost always concerns characters who are on the hunt for some version of paradise, whether it’s real or imagined. The genre is rooted deep in our national psyche, echoing decades of Westward expansion and the belief that the good life lies “out there,” somewhere. For Travis, that paradise is all Jane, a much younger and beautiful woman with whom he was, and still is, fantastically in love.

But like most road movies, Paris, Texas both is and isn’t a tragedy. Paradise is never what we’re expecting it to be, and the resulting disappointment inevitably changes those who embark on the quest to find it. Yet there remains a measure of goodness in how the trip, and its end, affects those who undertake it. In his aforementioned review of the film, Ebert wrote that Paris, Texas was “not for the desert and against the city,” like a Western might be, but “about a journey which leads from one to the other and ends in a form of happiness.”

And as its star, Stanton — with his long face and heartbreaking delivery — embodies that longing. He is a man who has loved and lost and lost again, a journeyer whose fate doesn’t ever really involve rest. It’s not a performance that tears up the screen, but rather sucks you in: You are Travis, and his journey is yours. At the end of that journey is something wonderful you can’t recapture, but that got you where you are today — something that simultaneously inspires both bitterness and joy.

Watch the trailer for Paris, Texas:

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