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Visuals save fragmented 'Don't Come Knocking'

Credits are a funny thing. To sell ''Don't Come Knocking" to any self-respecting art-house aficionado, I'd only have to mention the names involved. Director Wim Wenders and screenwriter-star Sam Shepard, who last collaborated on 1984's ''Paris, Texas." Costars Jessica Lange, Sarah Polley (''The Sweet Hereafter"), Tim Roth (''Reservoir Dogs"), Fairuza Balk (''Almost Famous"), and Hollywood legend Eva Marie Saint. A rootsy music track from T-Bone Burnett (''O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). You're ready to go, right?

Yet the real star of this big-hearted failure of a film is Franz Lustig, its cinematographer. A tale of Hollywood burnout and small-town redemption, ''Don't Come Knocking" fuses Wenders's love of lost wonderers and Shepard's obsession with broken families into one misshapen whole. The movie yearns almost ecstatically to achieve a state of grace but realizes it only in Lustig's camerawork, which sculpts the light of the American West into images that evoke classic westerns, Edward Hopper paintings, the honeyed yellow of nostalgia, and the cleansing sunlight of dawn. I could have watched the film with the sound off and gone home happy.

That said, there's real wit in the opening scenes, as movie star Howard Spence (Shepard) walks off the set of the horse-opera he's shooting in the Nevada desert and vanishes into the horizon. The production goes into a tailspin, and the director (George Kennedy) is forced to loose an insurance-company bounty hunter on Spence's trail. This is Sutter (Roth), a prissy bloodhound who suggests one of the Men in Black with an accounting degree.

We quickly learn that Howard is a full-time party animal who has finally run out of gas, and Shepard plays him as a bleak, ornery shell of a man -- Harrison Ford without the moral compass. He washes up on the Elko, Nev., doorstep of his mother (Saint), then heads to Butte, Mont., where he has learned he has a grown son from a long-ago fling on a movie set.

If you're thinking this sounds like John Ford's version of ''Broken Flowers," you're not half wrong, and the appearance of Lange as Doreen, the cafe owner who was Howard's lover two decades earlier, underscores the parallel. Where Jim Jarmusch constructed a deadpan cosmic joke, though, Wenders and Shepard seek reconciliation. Unfortunately, Howard's son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), wants no such thing.

''Don't Come Knocking" has drifted with fetching languor up to this point, but it loses its balance with Mann's entrance. Earl's a scraggly musician with a slatternly girlfriend named Amber (Balk) and a simmering anger at the world. He goes ballistic when Howard shows up, throwing the contents of his apartment out a window. The scene goes too far, as does Mann's performance.

But everyone here seems to be acting in a different movie. Shepard's doing existential Gary Cooper, Lange has a couple of her big weeping/laughing scenes (they're wonderful, but still), Mann grows smaller with every tantrum, Balk clomps around as if she's in a screwball punk comedy -- grating at first, she's downright lovable by the end -- and Roth works with calibrated British finesse.

Then there's Polley as Sky, the young woman who flits around the edges of the film carrying a blue urn containing her mother's ashes. The actress brings her spooky/serene intensity to the role (she's Uma Thurman on Xanax), and Sky effectively becomes Howard's conscience, among other things. Once we learn her secret, though, the character constitutes the movie's biggest stretch.

But Wenders has always believed in angels and coincidence, in ways that have benefited his work (''Wings of Desire") and weakened it (''The End of Violence"). Here the director's love for the grand moment and Shepard's fascination with family bitterness congeal into something alternately flabby and uncertain.

The finest scene in ''Don't Come Knocking" is its quietest. Howard sits on the sofa that his son has tossed into the street and . . . well, that's it; he just sits. A day passes, then a night, and Lustig's camera captures every shifting gradation of light, as well as the calm that comes from putting one's life on hold. This isn't acting; it's watching and, after a while, simply being. The movie could have used a lot more of it.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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