Two decades after their Palme d’Or-winning “Paris, Texas,” Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard find the roads out West a little rougher than they were before in “Don’t Come Knocking.” Working on themes having to do with an errant father, the wages of irresponsibility and the inability to look within, the team strikes some resonant chords but also hits notes that simply don’t ring true and are borderline risible at times, making for a problematic picture artistically and commercially.
Perennially drawn to stories of convulsive family dysfunction and absent relations, Shepard has here written for himself the role of a famous Western film star who, after a lifetime of dissolute, undisciplined and illegal behavior, literally rides away from a Utah film shoot to seek out what meager roots he has and, eventually, to find the offspring he never knew he had.
It’s only Howard Spence’s fame that allows him to get away with doing so many women, drinks and drugs and not pay a steep price. He may be over the hill, but he still has the leading part in what appears to be a traditional Western being directed by a veteran (George Kennedy).
Now, however, Howard’s had enough, and he heads from Moab to Elko, Nev., to see his mother (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he’s been out of touch for 30 years and to whom he says, “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.”
From the outset, there are details that don’t feel right and accumulate to provide a general sense of the picture being off the beam. Described and shown as having played straight-arrow heroes in the Randolph Scott mold, Howard would have to have been at the apex of his career around 1975-85, when Westerns, especially the type in question, were hardly being made. Even if he had been a huge star, would he still, around age 60, be instantly recognized by nearly everyone who sees him, including dozens of teenage girls at a motel, three of whom spend the night with him?
When his mother finally sees her son for the first time in decades, she natters blithely on as if there were nothing out of the ordinary, and when they arrive at her house after an aborted restaurant visit, she almost immediately bids him goodnight even though it’s still light outside. It’s that kind of movie.
Howard spends the night getting arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct at a local casino. Later, Mom does manage to remember that a woman from Montana called some time back with the news that she’d had Howard’s kid, which gives him reason to roll his late father’s car (which is about as old as Howard) out of the garage and head for Butte, at pic’s 50-minute mark.
As of this stage, Howard has exhibited absolutely no redeeming qualities as a man, having lived this long doing exactly as he pleased — due to the luck of rugged good looks — but developing no value system and learning nothing about consideration for others, professional responsibility or self-respect. He’s a void, the sum of his fictional roles and lurid tabloid headlines.
All this ill-prepares him for what lies waiting in Butte, a former metropolis of the West gone largely to seed. Howard tracks down old flame Doreen (Jessica Lange), who runs a lively local watering hole and points out their son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), performing with a band onstage. Upon meeting his father, Earl flies off the handle, ranting that he’s never heard of him (unlike everyone else in the film) and eventually tossing all his belongings into the street and insisting it’s too late for him to have a father.
Earl’s wild-man orneriness contrasts starkly with the gentle behavior of a woman who turns out to be Howard’s other hitherto unknown sprig, Sky (Sarah Polley), who walks around town with an urn containing the remains of her (unidentified) mother until Howard briefly gives her the time of day.
Unfortunately, Howard is inadequate to the task of connecting with either of his kids, and hits the wall with Doreen when he suggests they should have married and makes the impulsive left-field proposal of a reconciliation. Although they are meant to pack climactic power, these confrontations have a weirdly inauthentic feel to them as well, in their lack of credible dramatic rhythms and the paucity of meaning that stems from them.
There’s just no getting under the skin of Shepard’s Howard, a thoroughly unsympathetic guy who, in the end, is only at home in the world of fantasy and no strings. Shepard conveys the man’s inner angst far too often by tilting his head down and putting his fingers to the bridge of his nose in inarticulate exasperation, which in the end suggests little of what’s really going on inside him.
Lange gives a more developed and rounded performance in an almost identical role in Jim Jarmusch’s similarly themed Cannes entry “Broken Flowers,” as here she switches abruptly from acceptance to torrential abuse of her ex. Polley benefits from playing the only quiet and reasonable character on the horizon, while Tim Roth is uncharacteristically starchy as a detective engaged by the film company to track down the missing star and bring him back to work.
Shot on evocative, grand locations, pic has an expansive look on a moderate budget. T Bone Burnett’s score proves erratic, supporting the action fulsomely at times and distracting from it at others.