Sam Shepard trots out his well-worn themes of broken families searching for redemption and Wim Wenders his well-known penchant for painterly cinematic composition in their new collaboration “Don’t Come Knocking.” But the picture’s failure to approach the magic of their earlier joint effort “Paris, Texas” (1984) may only prove the adage that Shepard’s so often dramatized, frequently to brilliant effect–that you can’t go home again. In many ways, this movie seems like a sad knock-off of the earlier one.
This time around Shepard himself takes the lead role, playing Howard Spence, an over-the-hill cowboy movie star who bolts from the desert set of his current project, a cheapjack oater called “Phantom of the West,” and goes on one of the playwright’s patented journeys into the familial past, first visiting the mother he hasn’t seen in decades (Eva Marie Saint) and then making his way to Butte, Montana, where he filmed one of his most famous flicks, to look up Doreen (Jessica Lange), an old flame who now owns a honky-tonk there. He finds more than Doreen, though: it turns out he has two children he’s never known about–Earl (Gabriel Mann), Doreen’s boy, a surly, black-clad song-writer/singer, and Sky (Sarah Polley), whose just-deceased mother’s ashes the shy, withdrawn girl is carrying around in an urn.
The rest of the movie consists of these four characters’ halting attempts to reconnect, presented in a series of verbose, pseudo-poetic scenes that reek of staginess. (A particularly obtrusive example comes in the unconscionably long, deadly sequence set around a sofa that’s only one of the scads of clothes, furniture and assorted detritus Earl has tossed out his second-story window in a violent snit after learning his dad’s identity.) Many of the dialogue-driven sections of “Don’t Come Knocking,” in fact, would have worked better on the boards, where their flights of verbal fancy would have been more at home, and though Wenders photographs the wide western vistas and the broad, empty Butte streets with his customary skill, creating images that almost look as though they should be hung on museum walls, the visuals can’t make up for material that’s reminiscent of a hand-me-down Shepard play, recycling ideas that he’s treated far more effectively in the past; even the language here strikes one as second-hand. There’s a subplot at work in the mix, too, with Tim Roth as Sutter, a tight-lipped P.I. assigned by the insurance bond company to track Howard down and return him to the set. But it hardly adds any substance to the script, though it does provide a few laughs.
Under the circumstances it’s almost inevitable that the actors flail about badly. Shepard mopes around in his customary fashion, looking rather like a hand-me-down version of Clint Eastwood; he’s always been more of a presence than a performer, but in this case even the presence is undersized. Lange, surprisingly, is even worse, never finding the right tone for Doreen, though her discomfort may arise from the fact that the character itself is never credibly developed. The youngsters are a bit better, but not by much. Mann is just okay as the perpetually angry Earl, though his rage always seems calculated (and in his destroying-the-room scene, which is a cliche anyway, he’s no more persuasive than Orson Welles was at a similar moment in “Citizen Kane”); and though Fairuza Balk has a few nice moments as his girlfriend, it’s a throwaway part. Polley’s natural radiance shines through in another thinly-written role, as does Saint’s radiance, even though Howard’s mom, like most of the lesser characters, is again just sketched rather than filled in. Roth gets by on his slightly menacing slickness. George Kennedy, of all people, shows up for a cameo as the director of “Phantom of the West,” and it’s nice to catch a glimpse of him again, as well as of other familiar faces who appear in brief turns–James Gammon, Marley Shelton, Rodney Grant, Tim Matheson, Kurt Fuller and Julia Sweeney. But these pop-ups hardly invigorate what’s mostly a dour slog.
In fact, if you remember much of anything from “Don’t Come Knocking,” it’s probably not going to be the story, the writing, or the performances, but the ghostly, iconic images of Butte’s nearly-deserted streets, baking in sunlight, that Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig have crafted. But there’s only so much compensation your eyes can provide for what your ears must endure. When this movie comes knocking, it would be best not to answer the door.