3 stars (out of four)
In Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking," writer-star Sam Shepard plays Howard Spence, a movie actor who looks physically fit and a bit dissolute at the same time -- suggesting part of the mystery and magic of movie stardom. Spence is 60, 20 years past his prime and spinning out the end of his career in a swamp of bad movies, promiscuous sex, booze and drugs. Here, the old guy acts like a rebellious kid, deciding to decamp and ride away on his horse from his movie location in the Utah desert. Eventually, employers on his tail, he heads to Butte, Mont., to seek out the family he missed in those drunken years at the top: Doreen (Jessica Lange), a girlfriend from decades ago, and their grown son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), about whom he knew nothing.
There's something a little absurd about this story, but for me, it's endearingly goofy. Though some of it doesn't really make sense, there's more charm and beauty in "Knocking" -- Wenders' and Shepard's first collaboration since their great 1984 film "Paris, Texas" -- than in many more "successful" films. It's wonderfully acted by a cast that also includes Tim Roth as Sutter, the grim insurance investigator who's tracking down Howard; Eva Marie Saint as Howard's saintly Nevada mother; Fairuza Balk as Earl's punkish girlfriend, Amber; and Sarah Polley as the film's most unbelievable (but lovable) character, Sky, an angelic wanderer carrying an urn of ashes and an improbable secret.
"Knocking" also has the visual beauty -- a mix of bleak glowing deserts and parched towns -- you expect from Wenders, who grew up loving American Westerns by Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks, and who in "Paris, Texas" figured out a new way to make them. (Wenders has a new cinematographer, Franz Lustig, who seems the equal of "Paris, Texas" virtuoso, Robby Mueller.)
It's sometimes said that film critics go by brand names, that Godard is our Gucci, Hitchcock our Hermes -- and that the right name on a movie can win undeserved good reviews. Perhaps. But the reverse can be true, too, as with "Knocking," which was panned by some at Cannes.
You can concede some complaints. Not many Westerns are shot these days, especially not the corny kind Howard is making here. It seems strange that Howard's mother is so unfazed when he shows up for the first time in years. The film's most disliked sequence -- in which angry Earl heaves his possessions, including a TV and couch, out the window into the street, where they just sit for a day or two -- is hard to believe, unless Butte is suffering though some mass strike by its garbage collectors, police and nosy neighbors.
But I don't think ordinary logic applies to "Don't Come Knocking." The writing is as stylized and semi-abstract as that in a Shepard play such as "True West" or, for that matter, "Paris, Texas." This movie, which often seems to be taking place inside Howard's head, is a funny-sad lament on family and celebrity: a "Leaving Las Vegas"- style tragedy and a "Broken Flowers"-style comedy, broken in two and stitched together. The lapses in realism shouldn't blind us to its pleasures.
Shepard and Lange were one of the most beautiful movie couples of the '80s, and since they weren't used together nearly enough, there's an added poignancy watching them here, still with fire in their eyes -- albeit angry fire in Doreen's. The movie's biggest problem is that it spends too much time with Howard and the kids when the real dramatic mother lode lies with Howard and Doreen -- especially the scene where she tears into him for his false illusions about their "future." In any case, we shouldn't punish "Knocking" because it doesn't seem at first like the great film "Paris, Texas" was. Masterpieces don't always come knocking.
'Don't Come Knocking'
Directed by Wim Wenders; written by Sam Shepard, from a story by Shepard and Wenders; photographed by Franz Lustig; edited by Peter Przygodda and Oli Weiss; art direction by Nathan Amondson; music by T Bone Burnett; produced by Peter Schwartzkopff. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, April 7. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (language and brief nudity).
Howard Spence -- Sam Shepard
Doreen -- Jessica Lange
Sutter -- Tim Roth
Earl -- Gabriel Mann
Sky -- Sarah Polley
Amber -- Fairuza Balk
Howard's mother -- Eva Marie Saint
Film director -- George KennedyCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times