Don't Come Knocking

Don't Come Knocking

****1/2

Reviewed by: The Exile

Sam Shepard has always been a rare sort of movie actor: laconic, inscrutable, and profoundly uneasy with attention. His discomfort with the camera may have something to do with the way it captures his imperfections - the un-Botoxed creases and defiantly bad teeth - and transforms them into an iconic American ruggedness. As the ailing landowner in Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven, Shepard's shy composure effortlessly grabbed the screen from the movie's younger, more volatile star, Richard Gere; but whether from lack of opportunity or desire, that performance has only rarely been replicated.

Instead, Shepard has concentrated on writing plays and scripts, sometimes great ones, such as Paris, Texas. Under the direction of Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas became one of the most soulful American movies ever made by a European; and now, more than two decades later, they have resurrected their partnership to produce Don't Come Knocking, a return to the earlier film's themes of loneliness and familial redemption.

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Shepard plays Howard Spence, an over-the-hill actor who has made his name in Westerns and his reputation in bars and the beds of younger women. We meet him as he's galloping off the Monument Valley set of his latest movie before hopping a bus to Ely to visit the mother (Eva Marie Saint) he hasn't contacted in 30 years.

Mom gives Howard a bed and a meal but is surprisingly unfazed by his sudden reappearance in her life. He finds her scrapbook, a faded collage of tabloid stories on his encounters with drugs, booze and illicit sex, and he seems disgusted with himself. "How'd you get to be such a mess, Howard?" she asks, but he's so emotionally clogged he has no idea; and when she reveals he has a grown son in Montana - the product of a brief liaison with a waitress more than 20 years earlier - Howard borrows his late father's classic Oldsmobile and sets off to find his past and, hopefully, himself.

Set against Utah's glorious desert landscapes and the dusty streets of Butte, Montana, Don't Come Knocking is a parched, modern-day Western as sealed and self-contained as HBO's Deadwood. When Howard finds the waitress, Doreen (Jessica Lange) and his musician son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), things don't get any easier; and instead of Hollywood warmth and reconciliation, he finds they want nothing from him. What follows is a series of surreal encounters as Howard stalks Earl and hovers around Doreen; but while Mann overdoes the weirdness and hostility, Lange's brittle vulnerability grounds the film.

Critics have complained that much of the movie is simply implausible - including the suggestion that Western stars would still attract tabloid attention - but I think realism is beside the point. Don't Come Knocking isn't supposed to be literal: it's a work of insinuation and abstraction, a story about the illusion of home told through the eyes of a man whose whole life has been based on illusion.

What Wenders and Shepard are painting here is an Aristotelian void. Nothing in Howard's life is meaningful and the realisation has rendered him directionless. Indeed, contempt for the acting profession pervades the film, embodied in the figure of Sutter (Tim Roth), the studio bondsman on Howard's tail. Raking through the drug detritus in Howard's abandoned movie trailer, Sutter is swift to judge. "I see he's been engaged in immoral behavior, not unlike many members of his profession," he sneers. Scenes like these probably reveal as much about Shepard's ambivalence toward the movie business as they do about Howard's.

Don't Come Knocking may be slower, slacker and more difficult to engage than Paris, Texas, but its obliqueness is balanced by more perfectly wrought visuals than you'll see in the multiplex all year. Using every inch of the screen, Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig hypnotise with no more than shadows and light, at one point creating moving art from a couch, an empty street and an endlessly circling camera.

This isn't the first male menopause movie, but its images achieve compositional nobility that's infinitely more moving than the desperate humour of Sideways, or the rueful passivity of Broken Flowers. In its low-key way, Don't Come Knocking suggests that when we go looking for redemption we may get more than we bargained for.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2006
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Don't Come Knocking packshot
Nostalgia for the old times as age resurrects emotions and lost lovers for a legendary film star.
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Read more Don't Come Knocking reviews:

The Exile ****1/2
The Exile ****1/2

Director: Wim Wenders

Writer: Sam Shepard, based on a story by Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders

Starring: Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, Gabriel Mann, Sarah Polley, Fairuza Balk, Eva Marie Saint, Rachel Amondson, Mike Butters, Emy Coligado, Majandra Delfino

Year: 2005

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Germany/US

Festivals:

Sundance 2006

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