"Don't Come Knocking" opens with a bandit mask view of blue sky and fluffy white clouds where the eyes should be. A reverse shot reveals it to be a panoramic vista of rocks near Moab, Utah, with Sam Shepard on horseback high-tailing it from somewhere or another.
We quickly learn he's a washed-up movie star named Howard Spence who has gone AWOL from the set of a western in which he is starring. A 60-year-old drug- and alcohol-abusing playboy, Howard heads for home in Elko, Nev., a place he hasn't been in 30 years.
The film marks the reunion of screenwriter Shepard and director Wim Wenders, whose earlier collaboration, "Paris, Texas," won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1984. Though "Don't Come Knocking" revels in themes both men have had success with, its narrative kinks and improbabilities reduce it to an unsatisfying allegory. Despite a fine cast, the film feels as lost as Howard, unsure of its direction or tone.
Howard's departure leaves the film set in turmoil, its director (George Kennedy) frustrated and its female lead (Marley Shelton) unable to perform with a stand-in. A no-nonsense representative of the bond company, Sutter (Tim Roth), swoops in by helicopter and begins tracking the wayward cowboy.
In Elko, Howard's reunion with his elderly mother (Eva Marie Saint) is cut short by the revelation that he has a twentysomething son from a long-ago encounter on a film shoot in Butte, Mont. He heads off in his late father's Packard, unsure of what's ahead.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Sky (Sarah Polley) arrives in Butte carrying an urn with her recently deceased mother's ashes. Howard and Sky intersect at the restaurant run by Howard's old flame, Doreen (Jessica Lange), who seems more bemused than anything to see her long-gone lover. Howard and Doreen's moody musician son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), is not eager to embrace his father, and the film becomes a roundelay of awkward offers and refusals of rapprochement.
Butte may well give the performance of the movie, upstaging the more cinematically familiar Utah desert. The town's deserted streets look both beautiful and haunted -- nicely rendered by cinematographer Franz Lustig -- and feed Wenders' fondness for an American West etched with loneliness.
The angelic Polley moves through the film with beatific grace, gently guiding the other characters toward a conclusion. As frustrating and elliptical as the film's first half is, there an abstract peace that settles in by its end. Unfortunately, the mystery that engulfs Shepard's best plays, imbuing his dysfunctional families with a sense of drama and tragedy, is missing here.
`Don't Come Knocking'
MPAA rating: R for language and brief nudity
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Wim Wenders. Producers Peter Schwartzkopff, Karsten Bruenig, In-Ah Lee. Executive producer Jeremy Thomas. Screenplay by Sam Shepard, story by Sam Shepard & Wim Wenders. Director of photography Franz Lustig. Editors Peter Przygodda, Oli Weiss. Costume designer Caroline Esselin-Schaeffer. Music T Bone Burnett. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In selected theaters.