Don’t Come Knocking, a new movie by Wim Wenders about an obstinately heterosexual, if somewhat detumescent, cowboy, is so radiantly awful that, given the egghead credentials of the director and his screenwriter and star Sam Shepard, I initially took the charitable route and assumed I was in the presence of parody. Not to mention poetry: “You’re a coward, Howard,” says Doreen (Jessica Lange), a Butte, Montana, waitress of some 30 years’ tenure, which is roughly the time elapsed since Western movie hero Howard Spence (Shepard) — then in town to make the film that launched his career — loved and left her all knocked up. Now he’s back, having impulsively fled the set of a cut-rate Western in midshoot and dropped in on his estranged mother (Eva Marie Saint) in small-town Nevada for no discernible narrative reason. On learning from her that he has offspring, Howard hotfoots it up north to see for himself. In heavy pursuit and apparently the designated provider of light relief is Sutter (Tim Roth), a private eye hired by the movie’s insurers to retrieve their errant star. Sutter, who mutters, is a thoroughgoing stiff clearly flown in from some other time and place. Upon finding Howard’s abandoned trailer full of booze and firm young flesh, he comes on all Hercule Poirot. “There is every indication,” he muses, “that Mr. Spence has been engaging in immoral and irresponsible behavior, like many in his profession.”

Indeed there is. Howard is all washed up, and as Don’t Come Knocking grinds its way through two hours of where-did-my-life-go angst, one concludes that the passage of time, and going from has to been, is much on the minds of Wenders and Shepard, neither of whose careers has exactly gathered sparkle since they last worked together on Paris, Texas in ?1984. Here, they seem unsure whether to wax ruefully witty or agonized, and the result is a weirdly atonal film that lurches between heavy-breathing comedy and dramatic overkill. Having rolled into town and announced that he’s seen better days, Howard is confronted with not one but two fruits of his undiscriminating loins. His son by Doreen, Earl (Gabriel Mann), snarls at everyone within earshot, including his emaciated dopehead girlfriend (Fairuza Balk), croons mournfully of lonely men and, when pushed to the brink by oedipal ressentiment, hurls his worldly belongings out of an upstairs window while shirtless. Meanwhile, a dreamy young thing named — as people invariably are in Montana — Sky (Sarah Polley) wanders around with a blue urn under her arm, and when Howard foolishly inquires as to the contents, answers brightly, “That’s my mother. You used to know her.” The lyrical camera that enchanted mainstream as well as art-film audiences in Wenders’ Wings of Desire and, later, The Buena Vista Social Club turns downright cheesy here, whirling around Howard’s pensive face as he sinks onto his son’s abandoned sofa in the street, sobs a bit and gazes at a cardboard box lifted by a sudden wind. What can Howard be thinking of? The decline of the West? The decline of the Western? Or the plastic bag that was borne aloft by similar philosophical gas in American Beauty? “Why’d you let so much time go by?” asks his daughter. “I didn’t know it was passing,” Howard replies. Would that I could say the same.

DON’T COME KNOCKING | Directed by WIM WENDERS | Written by SAM SHEPARD | Produced by PETER SCHWARTZKOPFF | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At NuWilshire, ArcLight, Playhouse 7 and Town ?Center 5

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