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Absurdist Western a rough but rewarding ride

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I can imagine a lyric from a country song about Don't Come Knocking, the new film by Wim Wenders: "Hollywood will just go on faking it/And you and I, we'll just keep on taking it." There is a bitter, ironic beauty to the mastery with which Wenders employs the stunning visuals and narrative hopefulness of the Western genre, all the while juxtaposing it to the cruelty and dysfunction of modern life.

The best way to get a handle on Wenders' sprawling Don't Come Knocking is by comparing it to another Wenders film, the seminal 1984 Paris, Texas. Both films were written in collaboration with American playwright Sam Shepard, who also stars in this one, and the two films cover similar ground both thematically and cinematically.

The films focus on the return of a father figure -- in the new film's case, an over-the-hill actor named Howard Spence (Shepard) who is estranged from his family and to a large degree from his own past. In Paris, Texas, Wenders gave us a protagonist who could have wandered out of a Western film; here he gives us Howard, who has literally just escaped on horseback from the set of his latest production.

Martin Scorsese once said that film fills the spiritual need of people to share a common memory. What gives the Wenders/Shepard collaborations their energy is that they begin in a condition of near amnesia. As the estranged characters struggle to reconcile with their long separation, cinema itself functions as a form of memory. In Paris, Texas, it was home footage that tied the characters together. Here the vestiges of Howard's movie stardom serve that purpose, while Wenders uses the landscape of the American Southwest as a tool to comment on the struggle to maintain that reunion.

The dialogue and plot both draw heavily on absurdist theater, which is a powerful but dangerous technique. The exchanges among the film's experienced actors -- Shepard, Jessica Lange as his wife, and the phenomenal Tim Roth as the studio Pinkerton -- work in conjunction with the film's stilted narrative in a weird, wonderful way. When the same kind of dialogue is delivered by Howard's son Earl (Gabriel Mann), on the other hand, it is almost unbearable.

This film is not quite as strong as Paris, Texas. But this is a profound work, principally for the way in which Wenders wields the Western as double-edged sword. Here genre is a lens and a mask, a tool through which the filmmaker can comment and behind which the characters can hide. Sadly, the characters' awareness of their roles makes it harder to be simultaneously enthralled by Don't Come Knocking's layered commentary and immersed in these characters' struggles as well.

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