A slide guitar loosely twangs. The ocean blue sky is sharply cut off by menacing red buttes and the orange plains of a Texan desert. Travis, a raggedy Harry Dean Stanton, trudges through the dust. His brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) is told of Travis’ whereabouts after four worrisome years, and travels to retrieve him. Travis stares out onto the horizon. “𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵’𝘴 𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦?” asks Walt. Travis is silent. There is nothing out there, and that is what he is searching for. “𝘈 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘯𝘰 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦, 𝘰𝘳 𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘦𝘵𝘴—𝘢 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘯𝘰 𝘯𝘢𝘮𝘦.” As Nick Roddick once wrote, Wim Wenders’ sense of movement is to “𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘭 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮, 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘵𝘰𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥”. Escapism has never looked so romantic. But that’s why 𝘗𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘴, 𝘛𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘴 (𝟷𝟿𝟾𝟺) works; simply, because it does not.
This isn’t more of my pretentious hogwash. The film is incessantly out-of-sorts. Travis walks through the desert with what we perceive as conviction, yet it’s only us who expect a destination. As he’s driven back into society by Walt, Robby Müller’s cinematography highlights the imposing differences of colour, as a neon-green gas station surrounds the red horizon underlining a black sky. Travis reunites with his son who, due to his absence, calls his Aunty Anne ‘mum’ (Aurore Clément), and Uncle Walt ‘dad’. Travis dreamily smiles at a crumpled picture of a vacant lot in Paris. “𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘗𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘴?” Walt inquires with uncertainty. “𝘐𝘵 𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘬𝘴 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘛𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘴?”
Travis beams. “𝘐𝘵 𝘪𝘴.”
Everything is unparallel. And if the confines of the script are drenched in this metaphor of distance and catawampus, then the film’s genre has taken that literally and grown gills. Wenders films are often about the road, about moving, or a fear of stagnation. The road brings Travis back to Hunter, just as quick as it takes Hunter away from Anne and Walt. Father and son eat under a highway overpass, as if the city infrastructure is as glamorous as any nearby park. Hunter’s mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) wires money through a drive-thru bank; Travis’ father was killed in a roadway car accident. The asphalt for Wenders is both an escape and a motive. 𝘗𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘴, 𝘛𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘴 is as much a film about the road home than it is about the road leaving it.
And it’s with these sentiments that Wenders contextualises what it means to be restless. The road-movie may have been a fleeting romance in 1984 (“𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘰 𝘧𝘭𝘺, 𝘛𝘳𝘢𝘷,” rebukes Walt. “𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘧𝘢𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘳.”), but the anxiety of inertia, of sitting without fitting, is forever omnipresent. Travis didn’t leave the desert; he was taken from it—the constant low hum of passing motorbikes seem to call him back to the road. And as Jane kneels in front of a one-way mirror, misty-eyed at the man on the other side, we see Travis’ face reflecting onto hers. For a moment, the films awryness has brought them together.
But only when there’s a wall between them, and the lights are turned off.