a family story, a road movie
Synopsis by Wim Wenders
Howard Spence has seen
better days. When he was younger he was
a movie star, mostly in Westerns. At the
age of sixty, Howard uses drugs, alcohol
and young girls to avoid the painful truth
that there are only supporting roles left
for him to play. After yet another night
of debauchery in his trailer, Howard awakens
in disgust to find that he is still alive,
but that nobody in the world would have
missed him if he had died.
That morning Howard is
absent from the film set. Instead, we see
him galloping away on his movie horse in
his costume – full cowboy regalia.
But there is no camera filming him this
time. Howard is fleeing, from the film and
At an old train station,
Howard trades in his costume for the shabby
clothes of an old ranch hand. He rides the
train for a while and then he rents a car.
Eventually he catches a Greyhound, after
discarding his credit cards and cell phone.
Finally he arrives in Elko, Nevada, the
place that he ran away from years ago and
where his 80 year-old mother still lives.
Mom takes him in, even
if she hasn’t seen her only son for
more than thirty years. Although she’s
only seen his face on the covers of tabloids,
and received nothing but a handful of postcards
from him, it’s as if he had only left
for a moment to buy a pack of cigarettes.
She treats him as if he were still a boy.
Perhaps Mom realizes that Howard is on the
verge of a nervous breakdown. With her dry
humor and matter-of-fact approach to his
failed career, she awakens Howard to his
self-loathing and self-pity.
Meanwhile, the film shoot
that Howard has abandoned is interrupted.
The insurance company is furious about the
costly damage, which increases daily. They
hire a private detective, Sutter, to find
Howard. Sutter is a sort of bounty hunter.
Like Howard, he is a figure from a different
world. In the following scenes, we always
see Sutter on Howard’s trail, in hot
Howard, an alcoholic, doesn’t
stay sober for long at Mom’s house.
One night he wanders into the city and ends
up in a crummy casino, drinking with an
old school buddy whose pitiful existence
mirrors his own life even more painfully.
They get thoroughly drunk, have a mindless
fistfight, and end up in the gutter where
they get scooped up by the cops.
Howard wakes up in a drying-out
cell. This police incident brings Sutter
dangerously close to him, but Mom bails
Howard out in the nick of time. Afterward,
they finally have a real conversation about
the past. Mom remembers that more than twenty
years ago a young woman called her up trying
to locate Howard. Mom figured that the girl
was pregnant. Howard is shocked at the thought
that he has a grown child somewhere. This
child seems to be a ray of hope, a possible
salvation from his narcissistic and meaningless
life. When Sutter appears in town, reminding
Howard of the reality he has escaped from,
he flees again, this time to find his child
In 1900, Butte, Montana
was the biggest city west of the Mississippi.
Now it is a place of deep depression. Downtown
Butte is a ghost town, barely recognizable
as the setting of the film shot there 25
years ago, a movie that catapulted Howard
to stardom. Many affairs and one-night stands
took place during that shoot. Doreen was
one of Howard’s flames then. She’s
still working at the same coffee shop where
she met Howard as a young, blooming beauty.
She has a son, Earl, a rock musician and
singer living in Butte.
Howard meets Doreen again.
She reacts very calmly to the sudden reappearance
of her old lover and the father of her son.
Howard’s meeting with Earl, on the
other hand, is quite violent. Earl completely
rejects this unknown father who appears
too late in his life. Saddened by this encounter,
Howard is ready to give up and leave Butte
again, when out of nowhere a young woman
named Sky appears. She is exactly the same
age as Earl. She is in fact, Howard’s
daughter, the product of another short fling
that happened during the filming of the
same movie. She is Earl’s half-sister.
These siblings do not know about each other.
That’s when the real complications
of this American family reunion begin...
For the first time in his life, Howard tries
to do something unselfish. He tries to put
this disconnected family back together.
But he has little success. In the end, he
is relieved when Sutter appears to forcibly
escort him back to his role on the movie
set. At least there he has written dialogue,
a schedule, and an order to keep that he
is incapable of mastering in real life.
But even if his mission as a father is a
failure, he has managed to bring a brother
and a sister together, and mother and her
son closer to each other...