Judge Ryan Keefer never answers his door on Halloween, never talks to his neighbors, and he uses the hose when kids play on his lawn.
A farce, a family story, a road movie.
Don't Come Knocking reunites writer Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff) with his Paris, Texas director and collaborator Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club). In a cast of recognizable names and faces, along with Wenders' touch for the poetic, does Don't Come Knocking signal a return to form for both?
Facts of the Case
Back in the day, Howard Spence (Shepard) was a well-known Hollywood star of the highest radiance. He would make Western after Western and was known for partying. At first, he was described as colorful and wild, but the partying didn't let up as Howard grew older and in a way was almost fatalistic. On the set of his latest Western, he leaves the set without telling a soul, and disappears to Nevada, where he reunites with his mother (Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest, Because of Winn-Dixie). His mother is appreciative of seeing her son again (it has been three decades after all), but she tells him that a woman came by some years back and told him he fathered a child in Montana 25 years ago, on the set of one of his films. Howard returns to Montana to meet the woman, a café owner named Doreen (Jessica Lange, Blue Sky), and finds his son Earl (Gabriel Mann, The Bourne Surpemacy). Also in Montana is a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley, Go), who is taking her mother's remains to Montana to spread her ashes.
Now, some of you are probably saying, "Gee, this movie sounds pretty good, but Jessica Lange was in another film just like it (Broken Flowers). After all, both films are road films, centered around fairly stoic protagonists trying to locate their lineage, the seeds from their loins." But while Broken Flowers was inert in its character development and emotion, almost to the point of nonexistence, the emotion in Don't Come Knocking is a little more revealing and far more satisfying to this reviewer. The story starts just after Howard's disappearance, while the film crew is trying to piece together what happened and where Howard is. Howard commandeered a horse and got into town, and got a car to meet his mother.
Things start to pick up after that. Howard's mother talks about Howard's newsworthy partying, legal and otherwise, and reveals this nugget of information about Howard, and it certainly is something that changes his outlook on life. When he got back to his mother's, Howard came in as a drunk, confrontational louse, but he left on a more purposeful journey to find Doreen and Earl. When he gets there, he meets Doreen first, but she doesn't really feel like much in the way of regaining old magic, and she gets a bit to the point and shows him who his son is. Earl is on stage with his girlfriend (Fairuza Balk, American History X), who is supportive but a little bit loopy. When Howard tells Earl who he is, Earl is shocked, then becomes extremely angry, which I'm guessing is the next logical step when you've just found out that your father is the dramatic equivalent of Warren Beatty with a Stetson (and a drug problem).
The part of the movie in which it seems to derail a bit is the third act, immediately after Howard and Earl have a longer, more emotional confrontation. Howard is left to figure out what it is he exactly was seeking from his visit. Could it have been forgiveness, pity? Well, no one could have bought at that store any longer, so for the first time in his life, Howard is as whole as someone could be, even though things may not have completely worked out the way he wanted them to. It's hard to describe why (or how) the film lost its way, but in a sleepy Montana town, a woman carrying around a light blue urn or a guy with a Oldsmobile covered in disco ball mirrors does make for some Twin Peaks comparisons.
The performances are capable enough, Shepard as the aging cowboy is certainly believable, and Mann (as Earl) is very good as well. Lange is somewhat disappointing as the jilted, lonely restaurant owner, but I liked Polley's performance. Ironically enough, Polley's real life mother was an admirer of Shepard's before her death. At first viewing, Sky seemed to be a bit of a flake, introducing herself at weird junctures in the movie, not contributing much and almost offering random thoughts on irrelevant topics. But what I think Shepard and Wenders might have been trying to do is introduce Sky is more of a metaphor than a person in the film—an almost Tyler Durden-like character who serves more as Howard's introspection than as a real person. Her trip to Montana follows Howard's drive, her questions to Howard seem more internal than you first realize, and her presence around Earl gradually tempers him to the point of acceptance.
The scenery is usually the star of the film, and this is no exception here. The wide landscapes that Wenders features (shot in 2.35:1 anamorphic) look amazing. The clouds that move overhead and temporarily darken the sky really come through in solid detail, and they give Wenders opportunities to provide Howard with some moments of clarity that Jim Jarmusch didn't show when Bill Murray was going around New York with bouquets. Speaking of New York, the film's New York premiere is a supplement on the disc (with a Q & A session with Wenders, Lange and Mann), along with a look at the film's Sundance premiere. Wenders provides a commentary that seems very informal but is still full of information. He runs out of steam a little bit around the one hour mark, but it's a good commentary nonetheless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of all the people in this film, Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) is the least used and most out of place. Is he a cop, a private detective, an insurance agent? Even though he really doesn't explain himself, his job (to get Howard back to the set in one piece) is clear, and that's all we need to know. To be fair, Wenders explains his role in the commentary, so there's a little bit of a pass there. Still though, Roth does border a little bit on the pushy side, and anyone who isn't a law enforcement agent and wears a blue jacket and sunglasses and just happens to have a pair of handcuffs handy is creepy in my book.
I encourage those who liked Broken Flowers to give Don't Come Knocking a rental. It's a charming film that uses the modern West as a backdrop for a fallen Western idol, its characters are unique and entertaining, and there's an even mix of whimsy and in-depth emotion that makes it a better film in my opinion.
Not guilty. The court hopes that Wenders and Shepard will not wait another twenty years to collaborate again.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Wim Wenders
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