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Don't Come Knocking
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another masterpiece from Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard"
5 stars

Acclaimed German director Wim Wenders has been making films since the early 1970's and since 1980, when he signed on to make the ill-fated “Hammett” for Francis Coppola, he has shot a good portion of them in America. However, while watching his films, you don’t get the sense that you are in the hands of a veteran filmmaker. This isn’t meant as a criticism–what I mean to say is that each one of his works has the energy and enthusiasm of a rookie who has gotten the chance to make his first film and is pouring everything that he has into it for fear of never being able to do it again. Even well into his fourth decade as a director, he can still dazzle the eye and mind and when he is firing on all cylinders–as he was with “Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire” and the cult favorite “Until the End of the World”–he is as good as anyone out there making movies today and even his more uneven projects (such as “The End of Violence” and the barely-released “The Million Dollar Hotel”) have more value to them than the best efforts of most directors working today that I could mention.

Throughout his career, there are two recurring motifs that Wenders has explored time and again. For one, he loves the idea of people setting off on long and mysterious road trips in which the point of the journeys only gradually reveals itself. (In his ultimate examination of this theme, the epic “Until the End of the World,” Wenders told a story that literally took its characters on a trip around the world.) He has also shown a fascination for exploring the idea of reconciliation–some of his most powerful films have dealt with estranged entities (lovers, family, even countries)–struggling to come to terms with their pasts while forging an uncertain future. In his 1984 masterpiece, “Paris, Texas,” Wenders and acclaimed writer Sam Shepard created a haunting story that merged these two ideas together–a man returns from the desert after a long and unexplained absence and tries to bring together the family that he was responsible for upending in the first place–and the result was one of the great films of the 1980's. (If you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to put this review down right now–it will still be around later–and grab a copy of the DVD as soon as you possibly can.) Now, 22 years later, Wenders and Shepard have reunited for “Don’t Come Knocking,” a film that revisits the themes of “Paris, Texas” before spinning them off in new directions. The resulting film may not be the equal of “Paris, Texas”–few films that you will see in your life are–but it is a dazzling and touching work that is easily the most consistent and powerful film work that Wenders has done in a long time and is clearly destined to go down as one of the year’s very best films.

“Don’t Come Knocking” begins with an image that will seem familiar to most cinephiles–a solitary cowboy riding his horse through a picturesque valley into the sunset. Only eventually do we realize that what we are seeing is a film being shot and that the “cowboy” is actually actor Howard Spence (Shepard). However, the part about riding off into the sunset turns out to be genuine–after too many years of booze, drugs, women and gambling, once-famous movie star Howard has finally grown tired of what he has become and impulsively ditches the set of a $30 million-dollar film, trades his outfit and horse to a desert rat and impulsively decides to visit the mother (Eva Marie Saint) that he hasn’t seen in 30 years in Elko, Nevada. After arriving and getting into some minor local trouble (proving that the only thing more embarrassing than the cops bringing you home to your mother when you are sixteen is them doing it when you are sixty), Howard is stunned when his mother informs him that she was contacted years ago by an unknown woman in Butte, Montana who said that he fathered her child while filming a movie there 30 years earlier. After mulling this news over, Howard decides to drive up to Butte (in his late father’s classic car, naturally) to investigate, managing to leave just a few steps ahead of the investigator (Tim Roth) hire by the film’s bond provider to bring him back to fulfill his contractual obligation to finish the film.

Arriving in Butte, which looks as though it hasn’t changed a lick in the past three decades, Howard comes across former flame Doreen (Jessica Lange), now running the bar she used to waitress at, and discovers that she was the one who contacted his mother and she did bear his son, a weirdo local musician named Earl (Gabriel Mann). Howard’s initial and faltering attempts to meet with his son are disastrous–Earl, quite rightly, lashes into him for thinking he can just appear after all this time after having been absent for so long. Nevertheless, Howard continues to try to get to know his child and even begins to fantasize about a potential reconciliation with Doreen, a notion that she quickly and ferociously nips in the bud. At the same time he is being rebuffed by Earl, Howard himself rebuffs Sky (Sarah Polley), a former Butte resident who has returned home to collect the ashes of her dead mother and who has a surprising connection to Howard as well.

This may sound a little like the premise of last year’s “Broken Flowers” (and to add to the coincidence, both films featured Jessica Lange in supporting roles and both premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), but while that film played almost like a collection of short films that were variations on the same theme, “Don’t Come Knocking” comes across as a fuller and richer experience. For starters, it gives us a darker look at the real-life results of taking off and hitting the road than we are used to seeing from Wenders–instead of the romanticized view of freedom that he once celebrated in works like “King of the Road,” he now takes pains to show the actual costs of such a mindset–busted families, missed professional obligations and the sense of loneliness that is the inevitable result of a lifetime on the run from one’s demons. At the same time, Wenders and Shepard find a nice balance between comedy and the drama–while there are any number of powerful emotional moments to be had (especially in the scenes between Howard and Sky), there are plenty of big laughs as well, most of which are supplied by Roth’s portrayal of the most entertaining bond-company goon since the character played by Bud Cort in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

Other moments derive their power strictly from Wenders’ consummate gifts as a filmmaker. With cinematographer Franz Lustig, with whom he worked on the little-seen “Land of Plenty,” Wenders uses his outsider eye to encourage us to look at familiar sights in a brand-new way. Butte, for example, might not strike the average layperson as the most cinematic of locales but there is something so perfect about the way Wenders and Lustig approach it–like Howard, it is run-down and largely abandoned but still retains a deep-down integrity and individuality that cannot be denied–that you will be hard-pressed to think of a location in recent memory that has played such an integral part in a film. Also adding to the mood is the haunting score by T-Bone Burnett, returning to making music after spending years as a producer for others (he is probably best-known for putting together the best-selling soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) with a vengeance. Thanks to these contributions, even the smallest scenes–such as the one in which Howard and Sky warily spot each other for the first time at Doreen’s bar while the title tune, a new-but-sounds-like-a-classic duet featuring Bono and Andrea Coor, plays in the background–come together so completely and effortlessly that it nearly takes your breath away.

As an actor, Sam Shepard has always been more of an icon than a performer–his most memorable on-screen moments, especially as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” are usually more visual than verbal–but his work here as Howard is really impressive–without ever overplaying the emotions (not that he would ever be likely to do such a thing in the first place), he finds exactly the right notes to play in order to show Howard as a burned-out has-been gradually learning to reacquaint himself with the real world. His scenes with Lange especially strike sparks–oftentimes, real-life couples never quite work out together on the big screen but the two of them work well together and their final scene, in which Doreen gives Howard his final dressing-down, letting 30 years of rage, frustration and regret spill out at once, may well be one of the best scenes she has ever performed.

Among the supporting players, Polley takes what had the potential to become a ridiculous character and transforms her into the kind of pure soul that could inspire redemption in the likes of Howard (and it cannot be a coincidence that she is filmed at times in a way that uncannily reminds us at time of former Wenders regular Nastassja Kinski) and Eva Marie Saint lends the film an air of classic cinema gravitas as Howard’s mother, a woman who still cares for her screw-up son even though she has literally filled scrapbooks with accounts of his indiscretions. At first, I wasn’t too sure about Gabriel Mann’s performance as Earl–his flamboyant manner seemed at odds with the more naturalistic work from the others in the cast. Upon thinking about it, I have come to the realization that the performance makes perfect sense after all–this is a character who has determined himself to be the town’s artsy weirdo loner and Mann takes that approach to the hilt. (However, I still think that it is unlikely that his Nick Cave-like musical dirges would be regarded so positively when he performs them at a local bar, unless the crowd is being super-polite.)

Like the vast majority of Wenders’ films, “Don’t Come Knocking” doesn’t tell a story that manages to end things with a conclusion that tidily resolves everything–the story may end but the journey for the characters in continuing (or, in some cases, just beginning). If you are looking for something in which everything is resolved, there are plenty of other movies out there that will satisfy that urge and I suggest that you look one of them up. However, if you are one of those people who appreciates it when a filmmakers goes off the beaten path in order to explore and follow his own obsessions instead of rehashing ideas that have been focus-grouped to death–especially one who does so in a way that is equally striking to the eye, ear, mind and heart–I cannot recommend “Don’t Come Knocking” highly enough.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12786&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/07/06 00:27:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/05/06 Richard Weigle The film is beaurifull y shot, and Eva Marie Saint is awesome. She should be working alot m 5 stars
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  17-Mar-2006 (R)
  DVD: 08-Aug-2006



Directed by
  Wim Wenders

Written by
  Sam Shepard

  Sam Shepard
  Jessica Lange
  Tim Roth
  Gabriel Mann
  Sarah Polley
  Fairuza Balk

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