There’s a stark black screen with two bright white, luminous, almost pulsating, roundish images where eyes would be if the screen were a face. The titles come in to the lower left in a fat serif typeface. Daylight comes swiftly and the white images become blue sky through openings in a rock formation of Monument Valley, Utah. It’s the kind of photograph Wim Wenders might include in one of his photography books of the West. The camera slowly pans around 360 °and then tilts downward to expose an ugly array of white trailers, booms and trolleys of a movie setup. A horse with rider gallops at speed out of the valley, up an incline through the red rock and disappears over the horizon. That is Howard Spence (Sam Shepard), an over the hill movie star cowboy, coming off a binge of drugs, booze and debauchery. Two whores are still in his trailer.
He’s running away from his life, but doesn”t quite know where he’s going. He’s carefully covering his tracks, swapping clothes with a drifter and leaving his horse to walk to a town, rent a car and drive to a bus station. He calls his mother, with whom he hasn”t spoken in 30 years, and asks her to meet him at the bus stop in Elko, Nevada. As he is leaving the station to board the bus, he destroys all his credit cards and smashes his cell phone against the granite wall.
His mother (Eva Marie Saint) is bemused when he alights from the bus. “What are you doing, Howard? Why did you come here, it’s been 30 years.” He can”t answer that. Later, at the house, his mother asks about her grandson. Howard is dumbfounded. She shows him a picture of mother and child in a thick binder alongside clippings from The National Enquirer and Star, reporting his sordid life. He remembers a brief liaison with one of the extras, 20 years past, while working on a film in Butte, Montana.
Meanwhile, Sutter (Tim Roth), a slight, buttoned down, wily and persistent investigator for the company that insured completion of the movie in which Howard is starring, is on his trail.
This film is more in the style of Antonioni’s The Passenger, than Wim Wenders” Paris, Texas, he and Shepard’s collaboration of 20 years ago. The haunting visual panoramas and surreal flights of imagination are worth the price of admission. At one point, Howard is sitting on the couch that his son threw, in a rage, through his second story apartment window into the street. Howard is staring into space, wondering what to make of his life, and a very shiny, all chrome, Lincoln Town Car drives slowly by, followed by a clown car driven by a clown. Just in case he didn”t notice, they turn around at the end of the block and creep by again. The driver of the Town Car tips his hat.
Howard supposes, or dreams, that his son, Earl (Gabriel Mann in an over the top presentation) and Earl’s mother, Doreen, (in a stunning performance by Jessica Lang), will welcome him into their lives. Instead, Doreen is friendly, but happy with her life without him; and Earl is outraged that the father he once wanted and needed thinks he can show up to welcoming arms.
Howard’s shy daughter, Sky (Sarah Polley) from another Butte liaison, spends most of her time toting around her mother’s ashes in a green urn. This character is hardly essential, but Earl’s punk babe girlfriend, Amber (Fairuza Balk) is a dazzler.
Go for the stellar performances by Sam Shepard and Jessica Lang; and Wim Wenders panoramas. The story is good enough to tie it all together.
An M Rating of **** out of 5.