The bad news is . . . there’s not much good news
If you’ve despaired at the Wim Wenders of recent years — that long line, since 1987’s Wings of Desire, of weak, indifferent, flawed, or simply bad fiction feature films — then Don’t Come Knocking (2005) has all the promise of a fine return to form. Hopes are raised above all by the way the film marks the reuniting of Wenders with Sam Shepard, who provided the screenplay for one of Wenders’ best films, Paris, Texas (1984); here he not only co-wrote the screenplay with Wenders but takes on the lead role of aging Western movie star Howard Spence. Such a role draws on Shepard’s best acting-appearance and most heroic role as Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), where Kaufman portrayed the test pilot as a great Western hero, even astride a horse at times. But it equally draws on the flawed male protagonists of Shepard’s own writing, in plays such as True West or Fool for Love.
But sadly, none of this promise holds true. Don’t Come Knocking shares all the flaws and weaknesses of Wenders’ recent fiction films — in essence, the inability to create characters, themes, or a narrative structure that can truly engage the audience. Such a contrast with his work from the seventies and eighties!
There are two really problematic features to Don’t Come Knocking‘s narrative. One is the sense that, rather than being a productive revisit of the themes of Paris, Texas, the effect is more of a tired rehashing of the earlier film, visually (with Frantz Lustig’s beautiful vistas of the American Southwest reprising Robby Müller’s work in the earlier film); musically (T-Bone Burnett offering not dissimilar work to Ry Cooder); and thematically.
In Paris, Texas the journey of Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is one that atones for his past as a flawed, obsessively jealous and violent male. His act of atonement is to bring together his young son Hunter (Hunter Carson) and his ex-wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), to re-form the family unit from which he must by necessity remove himself, driving off into a darkness that parallels the desert that he emerged from at the start of the film.
Howard Spence, the washed-up, dissolute, and self-hating Western star of Don’t Come Knocking, similarly brings a family together, but the stakes, emotionally or intellectually, are hardly so high. At the start of the film, Howard simply deserts the film he’s currently shooting — as a result, it would seem, of years of irresponsible and dissolute living finally reaching their limit with him, pitched to such an unbearable level that his only possible reaction is to drop everything and run. As he’s shooting a Western, he simply rides off the set and keeps riding across country, abandoning his cowboy boots in a symbolic note, and rather improbably looking up his mother (Eve Marie Saint, above right), whom he hasn’t seen in thirty years. (Whom I haven’t seen in years, either. Where has she been? This is a wonderful, luminous performance, and the highlight of the film.)
His mother, in her turn, directs him on to an unnamed woman in Butte, Montana, who bore his son some twenty-odd years before. Howard tracks the woman down — Doreen (Jessica Lange), running a restaurant-bar in Butte — and meets up with his son Earl (Gabriel Mann), a continually angry country-rock musician. Earl not only violently rejects any father-son relationship but is also violently abusive to his girlfriend (Fairuza Balk) — perhaps a reflection of Howard’s own history of selfish and exploitative relationships with women.
Rounding off these family dynamics is the addition of another of Howard’s offspring, a young woman, Sky (Sarah Polley), who is as reconciliatory and accepting of Howard as her father for all his faults as Earl is resentful and rejecting. Sky’s function in the narrative is to form the glue that binds together a new family unit, a unit of the younger generation, of sister, brother, and girlfriend; Doreen is quickly out of the picture (refreshingly, she’s not interested in starting anything up again with Howard, and in one scene her placid exterior breaks with outrage at Howard’s arrogance in turning up like this after so many years), and Howard, like Travis at the end of Paris, Texas, withdraws from the scene once the family unit is secure.
There may be parallels between Howard and Travis, but the effect is quite different, above all in the way the later film indulges Howard’s character, and even conspires with his playboy persona to the extent of giving him an easy lay with a group of young hairdressers in the middle of his existential crisis. At bottom, nothing is really at stake in Howard’s quest, and there’s no sign that he is really changed by his experiences (he returns to the movie set at the end of the film). Moreover, the film offers no critical perspective on this.
Paris, Texas, on the other hand, is absolutely clear about the damage that Travis did to the people around him. That’s why the peepshow sequence is critical (and is also what makes the film so great). Travis has to turn away from Jane, has to isolate himself in that booth in order to confess both to Jane and to himself. It’s a moment of profound self-revelation, which Don’t Come Knocking has nothing to compare with; in essence, the new film simply isn’t inclined to explore these emotional depths.
I talked of two problematic features with Don’t Come Knocking‘s narrative. The major one is this way the film offers a weak retreading of Paris, Texas. But the complete lack of conviction brought to the portrayal of the film industry setting also harms the film. Howard Spence is portrayed as a contemporary movie star, an actor of Westerns — a genre which, with only the occasional and very intermittent exceptions (and have there been any successes apart from Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992?), has in effect died out in modern American cinema. We can certainly appreciate Wenders’ desire to pay tribute to the classic American Western, through direct allusion and through the evocation of the Western landscape — he was doing this as far back as Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974), when Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) reads the John Ford obituary at the end of the film. However, the one mawkish, cheesy scene we see being shot from Howard’s new film seems more in the style of fifties filmmaking, certainly nothing to do with contemporary cinema. We simply can’t believe in Howard’s backstory, which undermines credence in Wenders and Shepard’s whole narrative project.
Wenders has a great visual eye, and the look of the film can’t be overpraised: the splendid Western vistas of the opening sequence, and the way he seeks out places that we see so little represented in current American cinema — the tawdry casinos of Elko, Utah, and the forlorn streets of Butte, Montana. The clean, pristine images from cinematographer Frantz Lutzig of these settings are magnificent — but if only Wenders had trusted his visual strengths and dispensed with the redundant, wordier parts of his screenplay.
Sarah Polley is given a lot of this clunky, “meaningful” dialogue, as she wanders in and out of scenes offering what is meant to be some kind of spiritual dimension. It’s an embarrassing misuse of a very good actor (but who feels more embarrassment, Polley or the audience, at the lines she’s been given?); Wenders is coasting on the associations Polley brings from other films of youthful innocence and idealism. And an even greater misuse is made of Tim Roth (right). Roth plays the conservative-suited, buttoned-down investigator for a bond completion company, tracking down the errant Howard, and he plays the role, bizarrely, as a droll take on an FBI agent. In fact, Roth doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in this movie — and he’s right. Perhaps Wenders and Shepard had an idea of using the character to inject some humour into the proceedings. In any case, Roth is miscast and the character completely misconceived. And, because of Roth’s appearance as the deus ex machina at the end of the film, to take Howard away, it merely underlies what a misfire Don’t Come Knocking is. A sad case for someone like me who loved Wenders’ early films. It seems clear that Wenders no longer has anything to offer in terms of narrative fiction films. Let’s wait for his next music documentary, instead.