In 1984 indie director Wim Wenders and acclaimed writer and actor Sam Shepard collaborated on the film Paris, Texas, a moderately enjoyable character study about a damaged man trying to come to terms with his past. More than two decades later, Wenders and Shepard have teamed up again in Donít Come Knocking and the results are remarkably similar.
Howard Spence (Shepard) is an aging movie star, famous for his roles in westerns, whose life has disintegrated into a boozy, narcotic haze. In the opening scene Howard steals a horse from the set of the movie heís working on and takes off through the desert with no particular destination in mind. Much like Harry Dean Stantonís character in Paris, Texas, Howard simply wakes up one morning and abandons his life. Article continues below
Throughout his career, Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay for Donít Come Knocking, has refused to play any of the characters heís written. Back in the early '70s, Shepard wrote a play called Cowboy Mouth and agreed to take on the leading role. But the experience was too difficult for him, and after only one show, he walked out on the production and skipped town.
The similarities between Shepard and Howard donít translate into a memorable performance, however. Howard is a dissolute movie star, a bimbo chaser, a 60-year-old Charlie Sheen. And while Shepard may be a great actor, heís not a magician. He carries too much folksy charm in his weathered face and crooked teeth to be a convincing tabloid boor.
Once Howard escapes the movie set, he starts out on a journey through his past. His first stop is a little town in Nevada where his mother (Eva Marie Saint) currently lives. She hasnít seen or spoken to her son in nearly 30 years, so when they do finally talk, she has some startling news for him ó that heís the father of an adult child, conceived on a movie set in Montana during one of Howardís long-forgotten trysts. Unable to ignore such a revelation, Howard packs his bags for Butte, where he encounters his one-time lover Doreen (Jessica Lange), her son Earl (Gabriel Mann), and a young girl named Sky (Sarah Polley), whoís traveling cross-country with her motherís ashes.
The rest of the film is devoted to the emotional sparks that fly between these tenuously connected people, with Wenders supplying mesmerizing visuals of the barren West and Shepard lending his playwriting expertise to the continuous stream of heavy conversations. Both Lange and Polley excel in their somewhat limited roles. Lange delivers a blistering, paint-peeling speech that must be every thespianís dream, while Polleyís wholesome beauty and hypnotic manner of speech bring a sort of ethereal air to her character. Yet, surprisingly, itís the relatively obscure Mann who delivers the finest performance. Itís no secret that when actors play singers, a professional singerís voice is often dubbed over the actorís nonprofessional singing voice. Not so with Mann. His voice is shockingly good and the songs he sings highlight the film ó not to mention the fact that he carries his weight in tough scenes with heavyweights like Lange and Shepard.
All the same, itís hard to feel Donít Come Knocking the way it is meant to be felt. As the story works its way toward resolution, Wenders and Shepard place an increasing emphasis on the words the characters speak to each other, and every speech feels a bit more stagey than the last. While the screenplay for Donít Come Knocking wasnít adapted from any other work, it suffers from the same problems that have afflicted the filmed versions of some of Shepardís most successful plays. Like Fool for Love or Simpatico, it feels dull when it should feel sharp. The words that feel so fraught when theyíre spoken on stage thud when they hit the screen.