Don’t Come Knocking: Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) New Collaboration, Starring Jessica Lange

Cannes Film Fest 2005 (World Premiere)–Judging by their latest teaming, the meandering and diffuse modern Western, Don’t Come Knocking, middle-age has not been kind to either German director Wim Wenders or to screenwriter-star Sam Shepard.

The talented duo (each on his own rights) first collaborated two decades ago on the far superior Paris, Texas, winner of the 1984 Cannes Film Fest Palme d’Or, and one of Wenders’ best efforts.

Despite poetic moments of physical splendor, this revisiting of life in the New West, which is set in Utah and Montana, is overly familiar. Rehashing themes and myths of their first collaboration, specifically dysfunctional families, errant fathers, and immature men who refuse to grow up and take emotional responsibility, Don’t Come Knocking lacks freshness of observation or coherent characterization. The end result is a self-reflexive, self-referential, and self-indulgent work that lacks narrative coherence and emotional resonance.

It’s impossible to watch the saga, which is the coming of age of an aging and washed-up movie star (played by Shepard) without recalling fondly and nostalgically the John Ford and Howard Hawks Westerns, specifically Red River, Rio Grande and The Searchers, and Wim Wenders previous, better films. Indeed, Don’t Come Knocking is all about homage, a mythical reverie that pays tribute to classic American Westerns, their directors, and their movie stars, but one without a recognizable and creditable reality of its own.

The film within film that Sam Shepard’s (anti) hero makes, The Phantom of the West, and runs away from, reinforces this interpretation, rehashing several of John Wayne’s best-known scenes, in which his woman pleads with him to take her along and he promising to come back for her, but never fulfilling that promise.

Sony Pictures Classic will have hard time marketing this film stateside, and not only because the major characters, decently (but no more) played by Sham Shepard and his real-life companion, Jessica Lange, are of a certain age. There is not much in the film for young viewers who dominate today’s market, and the film might disappoint even Wenders’ hardcore fans, who have seen Paris, Texas, since they will make inevitable comparisons to that work.

Problem is not lack of realism, but lack of narrative credibility and coherence, which is strange since Wenders claims to have spent five years working with Shepard on the scenario. The narrative still feels like a conceptual compilation of bits and pieces and ideas that are only half worked out.

Shepard plays Howard Spence, a disenchanted Hollywood movie star who by is own description is “washed up,” a has-been. Drugs, alcohol and women have been the essence of his life, and after one night of hard play, he literally jumps on his horse and deserts the set of his latest Western.

The film director (played by vet George Kennedy) is outraged, and so are the rest of the crew and cast, including the leading lady, who refuses to do her big emotional scene with a stand-in. The insurance company takes over the production and sends an investigator named Roth (miscast British actor Tim Roth) to find the fleeing star.

Howard trades off his boots and shirt, cashes all his credit cards, and heads to his hometown, Elko, Nevada, where his mom Lulu (splendidly acted by the ever graceful Eva Marie Saint) lives. Though she has not seen him in decades, Lulu embraces her errant son, making casual remarks about his irresponsible conduct, while he gazes at photos of his more glamorous past, hung over the wall or glued in a scrapbook that chronicles all of his adventures and escapades, including several notorious arrests.

When his mother mentions that one of his flames had called some 30 years ago and that he might be the father of her son, the aimless and idle Howard decides to track her and leaves for Butte, Montana. He is not alone in his journey of self-discovery. Soon Roth and a mysterious girl named Sky (Sarah Polley), who is walking around with an urn that contains her mother’s ashes, follow him.

Second half of the story consists of a series of encounters between Howard and Doreen (Jessica Lange), the waitress he left behind who’s now the manager of the diner and the mother of his son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), an irritable musician, who seems to follow in his father’s footsteps, as far as drinking and mistreating his girlfriend (Fairuza Balk) are concerned.

Casually introduced by Doreen as his son, Earl refuses to acknowledge Howard as his father, a reaction that stands is in diametric opposition to that of Sky, a product of another of Howard’s liaison, who seeks reconciliation with her father, willing to forgive him for what he has done.

Defying logic or any sense of real history, Don’t Come Knocking is the product of intellectual filmmakers, who are more concerned with maintaining the myth of the West and Western movies than with telling a family story.

For example, if the movie were set in the 1970s or 1980s, it would have made sense for Howard to have built his career on Westerns. But, frankly, how many Westerns had been made over the past two decades. With the exception of a few Eastwood horse sagas, the Western is all but a dead genre.

Shepard the writer is particularly negligent when the female roles are concerned. For most of the film, Doreen has a certain calm about her, never letting her emotions out–until late in the story, when she has a big emotional scene on the street.

Then there’s Howard’s all too forgiving and understanding mother. Considering that she has not seen her son in two or three decades, Lulu is extremely accommodating, willing to accept her son’s misconduct with minimal reproach.

The casual, haphazard way, in which the two most important events in Howard’s life are conveyed to him, is strikingly phony. His mother mentions in passing the existence of a son, her only grandson, without ever getting too upset about it. Ditto for the informal, calm mode in which Doreen points out to Howard the son he never knew had existed. While chatting in the diner, Doreen suddenly points to the stage where Earl is performing one of his songs before saying something like, if you are curious about your son, he’s standing right in front of you.

Shepard’s handsomely withered look is of major help to his role as the aging cowboy, yearning for repentance and redemption before it might be too late.

The usually reliable Polley is stuck with a poorly written, most schematic role, the reconciliator between father and son. Like the other women, she too lacks overt anger or frustration; all she wants is acknowledgment from her father and her stepbrother. Even less convincing his Roth as the insurance detective, whose look and demeanor belong to another film. Here is an actor who’s so modern and urban that he really doesn’t belong in this western iconography.

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