Over-the-hill movie star Howard Spence (Shepard) goes AWOL from a Moab, Utah, shoot of an oater called "Phantom of the West." The film's director (George Kennedy) is a gruff, John Huston-esque character, but the film-within-the-film looks sentimental and outdated. Leaving behind a trailer full of hookers, booze and coke, Howard gets on his character's horse and keeps riding, giving Wenders and cinematographer Franz Lustig the chance to create some nice interplay between the movie cowboy and the "real" West, complete with a Marlboro Man campfire moment. Howard switches to rental car, his gnawing need for refuge somewhat improbably taking him to the Elko, Nevada, home of his mother (Eva Marie Saint), whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in 30 years. Welcoming but wary, she regards her wayward son from a concerned distance, lying to protect him from bond company detective Sutter (a splendidly taut portrayal by Tim Roth). In a rather contrived element -- or example of passive-aggressiveness on Mom's part -- Howard finds on his nightstand a scrapbook of infamy, filled with articles on scandals that plagued his career. Did this leading man get no positive press?
Howard's mother also has a 30-year-old news flash for him: A Montana woman was looking for him way back when because she'd given birth to his son. Howard's trip suddenly takes on a clearer purpose: He heads to Butte, where, while filming his first big hit, he romanced a local waitress. But Doreen (Shepard's real-life mate, Jessica Lange) has no romantic notions about reconciliation, and her son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), an angry young singer-songwriter of country-rock dirges, has even less use for him. Arriving in Butte about the same time is Sky (Sarah Polley), who's come to scatter her mother's ashes and who has her own reasons for taking an interest in Howard.
The spare, self-consciously mythic story clicks best in its droll and poignant observations of Shepard's and Roth's characters in the big-sky landscape. Lustig's widescreen vistas possess masterly depth and clarity, but his most affecting contributions are tableaus of Butte, the clean geometry pulsing with the longings of Edward Hopper's lone souls. A shot of Howard in his hotel window is particularly effective, the bright rectangle framed against the building's brick exterior like -- what else? -- a movie screen.
Lange dependably comes through with a full-blooded turn, and Polley infuses a hyper-poetic monologue with a lovely ache. But Mann and Fairuza Balk, as Earl's girlfriend, merely flail, and interactions often feel forced or tone-deaf. While the visuals and T Bone Burnett's score resonate, this narrative riff on alienation and identity disappoints. Starring Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, Gabriel Mann, Sarah Polley, Fairuza Balk, Eva Marie Saint and George Kennedy. Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Sam Shepard. Produced by Peter Schwartzkopff. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 125 min