Don't Come Knocking
Director Wim Wenders and
playwright/actor Sam Shepard created a great movie called Paris, Texas
a couple of decades ago. The two have reunited for a film which is
not as good as their previous collaboration, but does have some interesting
things to say and a offbeat, rustic vibe similar to their first movie.
In the new film, Shepard
plays Howard Spence, a film star from the 70s who is still hanging on to the
vapors of his career. Shepard captures the pathos and sorrow of a man
who tasted fame that has long since gone away – even the hardened and aged
look of the formerly handsome actor/writer show that this story is drawing
from real life.
Howard's life has become
anesthetized by drugs, liquor, sex and b-movies.
(The title comes from that
old bumper sticker line "If the trailer's rocking... don't come knocking," a
sign prominently displayed in his RV.)
Howard decides to disappear from his life and suddenly ride his horse off of
the set of his latest bad movie. These scenes are filmed at the
wonderfully atmospheric Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, which makes for
such a perfect backdrop for a western that it's amazing that it is not
The Hollywood types
(including some nice cameos by George Kennedy, Tim Matheson, Julia Sweeney
and Marley Shelton) hire a straight arrow detective (Tim Roth) to track down
their erstwhile star.
Howard ends up visiting his
mother in Elko, Nevada. Though she has not seen her son in decades,
she greets him back with good humor and patience for his self-pity.
Fifties and sixties movie starlet Eva Marie Saint does wonderful work in the
role – she really should be working much more in the movies.
When his mother lets slip
that Howard had a son during the filming of his breakthrough film decades
before, Howard decides to return the Butte, Montana, the town where he first
found fame, to now try and find his child and the woman he briefly cared
for. It isn't that hard, Doreen (played by Jessica Lange, Shepard's
longtime companion) still works at the same diner she had all those years
ago. However, Howard is somewhat thrown by the fact that she seems to
feel apathy towards him and the boy – who is now an atmospheric country
rock singer at a local pub – seems actively hostile towards him.
Things are further
complicated when a girl whose mother has just died comes to town and seems
to be convinced that Howard is her father as well. I don't think Sarah
Polley has given a bad performance since she first appeared on my radar with
a spectacular performances in Atom Egoyan's Exotica and The Sweet
Hereafter, even though the material she is given is not always worthy of
her talent. Here she is given a juicy – if slightly restrained, she
is supposed to be the one island of sanity – role that is vital to the
film. She is one of the few people here who is comfortable and happy
with her life, who wants to explore into her past to better her future, not
to wallow in what might have been.
Not everything works,
though. The character of Howard's son Earl (Gabriel Mann) and his
girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk) are the most problematic here. Amber
seems almost addle minded – true, she is supposed to be drunk (or high)
through the whole film, but still some of the things she says and does are
so off the wall that the viewers can't help but wonder how she survives on a
Earl is supposed to be such
a hot-head that when he gets into a fight with his girlfriend he throws
every single thing out of the apartment window. Okay, beyond the fact
that this has all been seen before (in this case it is particularly similar
to the first scene of Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law) but it just makes
no sense for the character. He is destroying his own property, not
hers – he smashes his own beloved guitars, amplifiers, record collection,
etc. He also throws out several things that could not have possibly
fit through the window – the sofa, the mattress and box spring, etc.
I suppose Shepard and Wenders were exaggerating for effect here, but it is
hard not to wonder about these things.
Luckily these two kind of
odd characters are more than atoned for by the incredibly subtle and
moving supporting work of Lange, Saint and Polley. Don't Come
Knocking is worth seeing for the master class of acting by three
generations of Hollywood women alone. Shepard also captures the
hard-luck bitterness of his character. If he seems a little numb
throughout it is only because Howard is – he is searching for meaning in a
life which was pretty much squandered. Whether he finds this meaning
or not is kind of beside the point. Don't Come Knocking knows
sometimes it really is the journey and not the destination.
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Posted: March 7, 2006.