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Don’t Come Knocking (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Don't Come Knocking

Don’t Come Knocking


Starring Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, Gabriel Mann, Sarah Polley, Fairuza Balk, Eva Marie Saint, Tom F. Farrell, James Gammon, Rodney A. Grant, George Kennedy, Tim Matheson, Julia Sweeney, James Roday, Jeff Parise and Marley Shelton.

Screenplay by Sam Shepard.

Directed by Wim Wenders.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  122 minutes.  Rated R.

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 utilized more.

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 to 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 daily basis.

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.  (3/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: March 7, 2006.

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