Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) is a Hollywood acting legend fallen on hard times. Deciding to escape his prison-like Wild West movie set, Howard runs away from his latest production, and heads off into the great unknown: Butte, Montana. In an attempt to rid his life of booze and depression, Howard searches out his lost love (Jessica Lange) for a long overdue reconciliation, only to find secrets he’s not emotionally able to confront.
A wildly successful playwright, Sam Shepard has never been able to pen a thrillingly happy tale. His stories (“True West,” “Simpatico”) are almost exclusively about regret, with the characters dragging around the frame after being whacked by the cast iron skillet called life for most of their years. Reteaming with his “Paris, Texas” collaborator, director Wim Wenders, “Don’t Come Knocking” is another Shepard dive into the deep waters of hurt and uncertainty.
“Knocking” could also be considered a coming out party for Sam Shepard, who turns in a performance that effectively erases the bitter taste of the last ten years of his career, in which he blankly took every role that demanded a stern military officer or stern government official. Working with his own screenplay, Shepard gives the role of Howard his best effort, skillfully registering regret and pain without much dialog or unnecessary character business. Wenders loves to get in tight to Shepard’s face, focusing on his catcher’s mitt-like skin and weary eyes, showing the audience the years of personal and social neglect have finally caught up with this western star. As the central character, Howard is surround by flashy supporting personalities (Fairuza Balk, Sarah Polley, and Gabriel Mann co-star), but Shepard’s interpretation manages to keep the actor’s remorse authentic, and grounds the rest of the picture when Wenders chases some tangents, or when the supporting work gets all screamy (I’m looking your way Jessica Lange). It’s extraordinary to see an unusual and itchy performance out of Shepard.
Also of great note in “Knocking” is the cinematography by Franz Lustig. This picture is nearly a work of art, with Lustig grabbing that elusive, uncluttered small town feel to Butte, along with golden widescreen western vistas. The film also features the most tragically beautiful den of sin as Howard steps into small time Nevada casino, lit like I imagine a Vegas night would look in Heaven.
“Knocking” is rather leisurely in pace, yet Wenders always keeps the viewer engaged by fixating on interesting human traits over polished melodrama. Howard’s journey from boozehound to enlightenment isn’t a huge arc, with Shepard keeping the film as close to the ground as possible, letting Wenders come up with ways to portray disillusionment with inspiration his hasn’t had in years; but the film sneaks up on the audience. By the end the hard work the filmmakers have done to slowly creep up on the emotions of the characters starts to settle in, and effects of “Don’t Come Knocking” linger long after the last sun drenched frame passes on the screen.Rating: B+