DON'T COME KNOCKING
       
a film by Wim Wenders
      commentary by Tony McRae


Have you had a father--or know of a father--who up and bolted leaving behind a woman with child?  If so there's a good chance you'll relate to Wim Wenders' and Sam Shepard's latest collaboration "Don't Come Knocking."  If you saw their earlier effort "Paris, Texas" you know this picture is going to be quirky, beautifully photographed, with interesting characters, and list just a tad off plumb.  

All Sam Shepard's scripts give us time to mull things over, time to fall in and out of love with his characters; we become anxious, shake our heads at people's downright bullheadedness and stupidity.  Harold Spence (played by Sam Shepard), the central character in "Don't Come Knocking," pretty much has a corner on bullheadedness.  A fading western movie star, he manages for a good part of this 122 minute movie challenges us to tolerate his feckless folly.  

One day, smack dab in the middle of shooting a love scene, he gets on his horse and rides into the sunset for no apparent reason, leaving behind the entire film crew.  We'll soon learn that this is a pattern in both his professional and private life, which is not all that private.  For years Howard Spence, with his exploits of brawling and philandering, has been the darling of the tabloids.  This time he decides to go home to mother whom he hasn't seen in decades (1).  Why his mother?  He hasn't a clue.   For the purpose of this movie, however, it's a wise choice since Howard's mother is played by the luminous Eva Marie Saint.  She takes him in, doesn't bother to give him advice, cooks him a breakfast he doesn't eat, and lies to an insurance investigator (Tim Roth) who's on Howard trail to bring him back to the movie set (2).  She tells Howard that some time ago she was visited by a woman named Doreen who claimed Howard fathered her child twenty some years ago.  "She's from Butte, Montana," she tells him.  When the coast is clear of the pesky insurance man, she gives Howard her car and off he goes to Big Sky country.  If he has any plan at all, he's certainly not aware of it.

He finds Doreen (Jessica Lange), a still beautiful woman, and he wonders...  (3) Trouble is, his gosh gee charm doesn't work this time (4).  Nor does it work on his son Earl (Gabriel Mann), a singer of sorts whose life is pretty much a mess.  As in many of his westerns, Howard Spence finds himself cornered, not by the bad guys this time but by his own careless duplicity.  He walks the streets of Butte (5); if he has any thought or plan at all, it probably waiting to see if something unexpected happens, some chance encounter, something fateful that might spur him to worthwhile action.  There's one haunting shot of downtown Butte at night in which the camera slowly pans the sorrowful town and comes to rest outside Howard's hotel room.  The big man sits there shoulders hunched as if in an Edward Hopper painting (6).  We feel his inexplicable sense of loss, his confounded yearning.  Is he pitying himself?  Perhaps he's frightened.  We wonder if he will get the gumption to change his life?  But as with Hopper, this is not really the point.  What is the point, at least my sense of the point, is that Howard Spence, a burdened man, is finally thinking.  While sitting on a sofa Earl has thrown out his window--along with other stuff--he seems to come to a self-realization that forces him to do something that could actually be morally good..  

Meanwhile Harold is being followed, not only by the insurance investigator, but by a young woman carrying a rather large blue urn which contains her mother's ashes (7).  Sky (Sarah Polley) has good reason to track Howard--seems she's the offspring of yet another Howard Spence encounter.  Sky is certainly not central to the plotline, but then she needn't be.  Like Harold, she occupies her solitude, but it is a different solitude from his; hers speaks to an inner life, something Harold Spence has not known, perhaps never knew.  She becomes a coalescing force that brings together Earl, his companion Amber (Fairuza Balk), Howard, and perhaps Doreen.  The possibility is there, which is itself significant.  When the insurance man finally catches up with him he agrees to go back to the movie set, not because he wants out of what's happening to him in Butte (as one critic surmises), but because it is the right thing to do.  

Jessica Lang and Sam Shepard (8) have not made nearly enough movies together.  Here they both are alone in Butte--alone together.  It defies logic, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as we get to feel their thinking.

Butte seems to be a good place for this to happen.  It's not Montana's most picturesque city, yet cinematographer Franz Lustig's cityscape is replete with regret, like Howard Spence himself. 

And if you like this movie, get yourself a copy of Shepard's new collection of stories "Day Out of Days" published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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