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Don't Come Knocking

Wenders Examines the Road Less Traveled

Twenty-two years after playwright Sam Shepard and director Wim Wenders brought us Paris, Texas, a quiet masterpiece of a road movie, the two have returned with another exploration of America's lonesome highways, Don't Come Knocking. If time has dulled the effectiveness of their storytelling, they can be forgiven. Even when he's off his game, Wenders can be counted on for unconventional, original filmmaking, enriched by the breathtaking cinematography that has become one of his trademarks. In that respect, Don't Come Knocking doesn't disappoint.

It is an epic tale, the kind that find Wenders and Shepard dealing with a character that they know well -- the rootless wanderer, driven by a need to explore an abandoned past. In Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton played a drifter in search of his son and estranged wife. Here, the names have changed, but the characters are familiar. Shepard, a grizzled 62, is Howard, a restless, hard-living actor whose glory days as a gun-slinging western star are long gone. So, like one of the cowboys he's played so often, he takes to the countryside, leaving the Utah set of his latest film to visit home for the first time in 30 years.

There, in Elko, Nev., he finds his mother (Eva Marie Saint), who surprises him with news that he may have an illegitimate son in Montana. So it's off to desolate Butte, where Howard encounters a onetime, acid-tongued lover (Jessica Lange) and a son (Gabriel Mann) who wants nothing to do with his deadbeat dad. Later, he meets Sky (Sarah Polley), a second child by a different mother, who exists only to give Howard another opportunity to reminisce about the life that could have been.

While Don't Come Knocking contains moments of memorable beauty courtesy of cinematographer Franz Lustig, who renders the barren landscapes of Elko and Butte in wondrous fashion, it slows to a sluggish pace once Howard reaches Montana. Even so, Shepard excels as a washed-up icon who is emotionally and physically spent after years of drugging and boozing. His journey into the past presents the illusion of redemption, but nothing more.

Like Scrooge re-imagined as an Old West has-been, he can wander down the roads he might have traveled, but at the end of the day, he is stuck with decades of rotten choices. By the time an insurance investigator tracks him down, bent on returning Howard to his movie set, he seems almost grateful. For an aging cowboy, looking back is harrowing, and moving on -- to the next town, the next woman, the next movie -- is really the only choice left.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars