Director: Wim Wenders
By Roderick Heath
Like, I think, many other viewers, I gave up on Wim Wenders after the overlong, over-everything sci-fi work Until The End Of The World (1991). I had barely watched any of his work since then, a sad thing considering that two of his films from the 80s, Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984), are amongst my favourites of all time. Don’t Come Knocking was selected for Cannes a couple of years back and greeted by some as a comeback, all the more promising in that it reunited Wenders with Paris, Texas’ scribe, Sam Shepard.
Since that film’s chilly, unremitting look at humanity lost in wasteland culture, and the counterbalancing magic realism of Wings of Desire (1987), Wenders had become lost in a simultaneous desire to critique modern culture and still be a kind of pop cinema icon, doodling in inflated arthouse projects that lack both the scrappy appeal and economy of a outsider’s low-budget work. Like his mates in U2, he seemed to have long exchanged the appeal of a good hook and well-crafted tune for a desire to be cooler than God and duller than dishwater.
Don’t Come Knocking isn’t on its face so hugely promising either. It’s laced with flourishes of the fable, always the stickiest, most potentially irritating of narrative modes, and tells a pretty familiar story. Hell, after Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, it’s the second film of 2005 to have the same plot and feature Jessica Lange. Tim Roth plays an unplayable part—a film-studio lawyer who acts like a secret service agent, a remorseless, culturally hermetic enforcer of a plastic, unfeeling corporate culture. Yeah, right, like groovy, gotta watch out for the Man, y’dig?
And yet, Don’t Come Knocking maintains a poise of expression, a precision of pace, and a lightness of touch that are beguiling. Shepard plays a Western movie star named Howard Spence who indulges in all the modern excesses. Yeah, I know, there are no Western stars anymore, and this kicks off the film’s edge of fable, as Howard, in costume and on a horse, flees a movie set full of irritating movie types, clueless groupies, and a red-faced, infuriated director (George Kennedy!).
Howard, swaps clothes with a drifter and proceeds on foot to the nearest car rental lot. He drives to Nevada to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint), who he hasn’t seen in 30 years. We learn that although Howard’s family used to own a ranch, his pose as a cowboy is bogus. His mother has long since sold the property and lives in a bungalow in a Nevada gambling town. She’s kept a scrapbook of his newspaper clippings detailing innumerable drug and drink problems, brushes with the law, fights, and general catastrophe. Howard’s a bundle of nerves and angry impulses. He’s on the run from his reputation. Deeply uncomfortable in the shallow glitz of the local casino he stalks through, he nonetheless likes it when young women recognise him. It’s only with an old school friend that he loses it. He is eventually arrested for getting too emphatic with a slot machine.
Howard soon finds from his genteel, utterly honourable mother, that he has a son, or so she was told by an ex-girlfriend of his in Butte, Montana, where he shot one of his most successful films, “Just Like Jesse James.” Simultaneously, a young woman named Sky (Sarah Polley) sets out with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, to scatter them in the mountains where her mother had mentioned being happy. Soon, both she and Howard are in Butte—she carrying a blue urn with the ashes, he driving his father’s long-unused Cadillac. Finding his old flame, Doreen (Lange), isn’t difficult; she runs the M&M Bar where they met when she was a waitress. She soon leads him to their son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who’s a singer-songwriter in an alt-country-blues band, escorted by his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk), who’s so flaky she could blow away. Earl’s a bundle of dynamite, fuelled by long-festering resentment, ready to go off at Doreen, Amber, or Howard.
Like Paris, Texas and other Shepard works, Don’t Come Knocking is about regeneration, featuring Shepard’s signature ruined man struggling to recover from the wounds of the past that have reduced him to a vagabond or madman. The demons that drive Howard are obscure, but slowly reveal themselves. In fleeing a rural life, Howard has lived a modern dream, found it hollow, and is panicked contemplating the emptiness of old age. He’s a manifestation of a lost America, whilst Earl is young America—confused and consumed by disillusion and frustration. Sky attempts to serve as intermediary, recognising that the two men, instantly and violently at odds, are her brother and father. The generations are all at odds; Howard’s mother is infinitely forgiving but as easily appalled (by rudeness) as Earl is compulsively unforgiving.
Don’t Come Knocking is essentially a love letter to an America of the mind, much like Bob Dylan’s recent albums, where, on the outskirts of town, western heroes, blues musicians, punks, and hippie chicks hold court in a mystic kingdom of Cool. Many of the visual compositions are highly reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s work, recreating Hopper’s sense of the alien in the familiar. Wenders’ eye, aided by Franz Lustig’s gorgeous cinematography, captures a West that seems simultaneously beauteous, mystical, eerie, and sparse. The film isn’t so stylised that it seems to happen on another planet, but it does unfold in a dreamy altered state into which manifestations of modern life (chintzy casinos, gyms full of programmed exercisers) appear as epigrams of absurdity. Shepard’s poetic dialogue reinforces the mood, but its feel for detail is strong, like Earl’s boho apartment, on the top floor of a weirdly severed terrace house.
Most vitally, though unhurried, the film unfolds with a sleek, unruffled ease, moves insistently, and never quite comes to a dead stop until Howard does, in one of the film’s strangest images: Earl, in a rage, ejects first Amber from his apartment and then every item of furniture through an open window, including his couch, upon which Howard falls in bleak, exhausted depression and sits as the day drains away, having realised his son and future might be beyond reach. He’s already been dressed down by Doreen after he said they should have gotten married; she insists there’s no way she’s becoming an emotional crutch for his sorry ass (a spectacular bit of acting from Lange), before kissing him passionately and leaving him in solitude, simultaneously affirming her feeling for him whilst jabbing a thumb in the eye of menopausal male self-involvement.
Most of the last act occurs in the open-air travesty of a home Earl’s destructive fit provides, where a ragged family accumulates in an exploded living room. Howard tries to leave town, but crashes his car in a boozy daze, and is hauled from the car by Roth, who has finally caught up with him to drag him back to the movie set. Howard manages to convince Roth to give him enough time to say goodbye to his kids. Sky delivers an impassioned soliloquy gushing her desire for Howard to be her father and end a lifelong ache, which Earl also felt but suppressed. Her words melt both Howard’s and Earl’s hearts, even as Howard is hauled off by Roth. He finishes the movie, effortlessly recapturing his style, as Sky, Earl, and Amber drive the Cadillac to come rescue him.
It’s an unabashedly sweet and cheering ending, all the more affecting for the film’s caginess about its tone and intent—its semi-surreal portrait of modern America is sort of like David Lynch on happy pills. The acting, apart from Roth’s inevitable discomfort, is great. In addition to his skills as an author, Shepard is always a tightly wound, unusually minimal, and truthful-seeming acting presence. His underplaying works well against Mann’s souped-up bravura, and Polley radiates sunshine from her pores.
It’s a treat.