Cameras are rolling on the set of Phantom of the West, a mawkish western shooting in the Moab desert, but leading man Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) is nowhere to be found. A washed-up alcoholic loser, Howard has tired of his bad-boy rugged individualism and taken off on horseback, searching for who-knows-what: some alternative to fleabag filmmaking, womanizing and the drunk tank at middle age.
His mother (Eva Marie Saint, delightfully self-composed) lies to keep the producers' strongman (a very droll Tim Roth) off Howard's back, but she won't save him. Neither will Doreen (Jessica Lange), Howard's old flame, who's still lighting up a diner in dusty downtown Butte, Mont.
Howard's on his own this time. Enter Sky (Sarah Polley), who's got her late mother's ashes in a jar and suspects Howard might be her father. Also knocking around town is Earl (Gabriel Mann), a pointy-toed rockabilly guy who's pretty sure Howard is his father — Doreen says so — but who couldn't care less.
Shepard (who also scripted) and Wenders are like celestial bodies who cross paths every 20 years — this is their first collaboration since 1984's Paris, Texas — but they work in remarkable accord, and Don't Come Knocking is a warm and sublime meditation on making a home out west and finding yourself after being lost and misguided.
Wenders is still fascinated by America's big-sky country, by its serpentine highways and big cars, by its music (the songs in the film are by T-Bone Burnett) and by the way the desert collects lost souls. Even Roth, who's all business, is drawn in: In one lovely, offhand scene he quizzes hash-slinger Lange on the difference between home fries, hash browns and redbud potatoes. He's not even hungry — he's got to bring Shepard back to the set in handcuffs — but he has to know why there are three different kinds of potatoes on the menu.
The movie is a little studied and prickly for mainstream audiences (Wenders and cinematographer Franz Lustig love to shoot dialogue through windows, like scientists peering at specimens on a slide) but it softens as Howard accepts the mantle of fatherhood and becomes absorbed into his new environment. The characters are all in search of second chances, and Don't Come Knocking gives them beautiful possibilities without ever seeming soggy.
Wenders prankishly returns to the set of the schlocky film-within-the-film as a counterpoint to his own opus, but his satire of Hollywood is chiding, not obnoxious. With its wonderful veteran cast, its heart on its sleeve and a love for the landscape that suffuses its technique, Don't Come Knocking is a peculiar but rewarding escape. Grade: B+