Don’t Come Knocking is the first time director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard have collaborated since their Palme d’Or-winning movie Paris, Texas in 1984. Like their previous venture, it explores attempts to reconcile estranged family relationships amidst the backdrop of desert towns in the American West but although equally visually arresting it lacks the same emotional pull.
This time Sam Shepard himself plays the lead (he decided not to take on the Harry Dean Stanton role in Paris, Texas) and the wonderfully rootsy score is by T. Bone Burnett rather than Ry Cooder, but stylistically and thematically the two films are very similar.
Dedicated followers of the director as auteur theory may want to foreground Wenders’ epic sweep and surreal imagery, but this is just as much Shepard’s film, with his elliptical screenplay echoing the preoccupations with identity and alienation in his stage plays. The result is a fascinating if flawed cross-fertilization of German art-house with the American frontier.
Shepard plays the part of the ageing Howard Spence, once a big cowboy star, but now reduced to supporting roles. No longer satisfied by his self-centred lifestyle of booze, drugs and women, he walks out (or, rather, gallops away on his horse) from his current film set in the Nevada desert. Having exchanged his movie costume for the clothes of an old ranch hand (in a symbolic gesture of personal renewal), he embarks on a journey of self-discovery which involves coming to terms with people and events from his past life.
He travels to Elko, Nevada for the first time in three decades to see his octogenarian mother, who tells him a woman pregnant with his child phoned her over 20 years ago trying to find him. Howard then drives in a vintage Packard to Butte, Montana, where he had an affair with a waitress called Doreen while making a film there, and finds her in the same bar, where their son Earl sings in a rock band. He also meets a young woman named Sky who turns out to be his daughter from another liaison.
Meantime, while Howard is trying to resolve the complications and tensions of his newly discovered family, Sutter, a ‘bounty hunter’ from the insurance company backing his film, is on his trail, determined to take him back to the set with or without his acquiescence.
In this odyssey of self-development the arid landscapes parallel the sterile inner life of the (anti-)hero who has been unable or unwilling to commit himself emotionally to anyone else. If some scenes don’t seem very plausible, that is probably because fundamentally this is not a naturalistic film. The trouble is that the allegorical subject-matter doesn’t always sit comfortably with the real feelings of flesh and blood individuals. The stylized approach is intriguing but, ultimately, uninvolving as we don’t really care about the plight of the protagonists.
The movie – beautifully photographed by Franz Lustig – is full of stunning imagery, right from the opening frame which initially looks like the eyeholes of a mask until the camera pans back to reveal the massive eroded rock formations of Moab. Other memorable images include the movie caravans nestling in the desert like a circle of wagons about to be attacked by the Apache, and Howard spending the night in the street on a sofa Earl has angrily hurled from his first-floor flat.
As well as playing with the iconography of the Western, the movie contains many moments of zany humour, such as Howard’s mother offering Sutter freshly baked cookies to distract him from his mission, or Howard being arrested after getting punch drunk in a fairground booth.
Shepard, with his rugged (or ravaged) good looks as craggy as the Monument Valley, looks every inch the fading matinee idol, as he struggles to articulate his sense of being an outsider, doomed to be forever on the move like so many Western heroes. Jessica Lange (Shepard’s real-life wife) shows Doreen to be still attracted to Howard but wary of being hurt by him again.
As the half-siblings, Gabriel Mann is a rather melodramatic Earl, temperamentally closer to his father than he would want to admit, while Sarah Polley’s Sky is an attractively calming influence, as she carries around the urn containing her mother’s ashes. Tim Roth amusingly plays Sutter as an eccentric control freak who is also a consummate professional, preferring to keep the messiness of human relationships at a distance.
Finally, what a pleasure to see the delightful Eva Marie Saint (star of On the Waterfront and North by Northwest) as Howard’s independent mother, unfazed by her son’s dissolute behaviour as she affectionately regards him as a boy who has never grown up.