**/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, Gabriel Mann
screenplay by Sam Shepard, based on his play
directed by Wim Wenders
by Walter Chaw Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) is a has-been western star knocked down a few pegs by alcohol, drugs, and groupies--and so like any good anti-hero, he takes off in the middle of shooting a film, on horseback, to reunite with his long-estranged mother (Eva Marie Saint) before heading off to Butte, Montana in search of a long-lost bastard son (Gabriel Mann). He has a few conversations with the barmaid (Jessica Lange) he knocked up once upon a time, while a sullen girl (Sarah Polley) carrying a blue urn stalks him around town, offering the occasional cryptic message before retreating again into the wallpaper. But what glorious wallpaper it is, with Wim Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig finding in Butte a myth of the American West frozen in bright, primary, Edward Hopper amber. Twin painters of isolation and suspension, Wenders and Hopper--since long about The American Friend--have been on a mission to redraw the psychic divorce of one American from another in minor chords and long, drawn-out tremolos. Don't Come Knocking, though, is only minor Wenders, and I do wonder if giving over too much faith in the flagging abilities of Shepard to write a script worth shooting has cost him his pitch this time around.
At his best, Wenders is besotted by a collective framework of invisible tenterhooks that bind one person to another--more as ideas than as meat--across great, empty divides. It's what made the German New Wave director such a perfect match for the vastness of the deserts of the United States and that favoured genre son: the road movie. Even there, in the middle of nothing, he increases our sense of isolation by shooting from places at some remove, depositing his protagonists at a lonesome altitude from which to look down upon, and up, and across. In his underestimated, prescient The End of Violence, the Gabriel Byrne character sits in the Griffith's Park Observatory, high above Los Angeles, watching an array of video monitors upon which he witnesses a violent abduction--an image of an ambivalent angel carried over from Wenders's Wings of Desire, as well as something he'll carry forward to all the rooftop vistas of Million Dollar Hotel and now into Don't Come Knocking, in which he reunites with playwright Sam Shepard for the first time since Paris, Texas to create a remake, of sorts, of that classic, only without the urgency or sense of freshness. Blame Shepard's self-conscious, mortally stage-bound script (or maybe it's the lack of a musical muse this time around), because when Wenders spins his camera around Shepard in a 24-hour pan (an audacious, show-stopping bit of flashy auteur existentialism), Don't Come Knocking finds that invisible framework and plucks it like a guitar string. For a few moments, the world revolves around Howard Spence (Shepard) and we get a good, long look at how it's all come apart for him.
Too much of the film is given over to the unchallenging, to the easy gag and the predictable development; it's a far cry from the anti-narrative noir of Wenders's Patricia Highsmith adaptation. You can almost feel Wenders relaxing, trusting Shepard to do the narrative lifting, but all that's squeezed from that turnip is desperation of the unbecoming kind: a legend of a certain flavour trying hard to recapture a little of that old black magic with broad strokes and braggadocio. Ironically more than literally, Don't Come Knocking is a better diorama of the old hero turned anachronism and object of sympathy. For Wenders's part, the picture is breathtakingly beautiful and, visually, ineffably sad. Howard's mother's glass vantage high on a Nevada bluff recalls the director's fascination with metaphysical crow's nests and introspective spyglasses even as Shepard's idea of comic noir inversion in a slicked-down insurance investigator (Tim Roth) threatens to bring the whole house down. It's a film at eternal tension between Wenders's transcendentalism and Shepard's Ozymandian pretense--one in the air and the other buried in the sand. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" says Shelley's poem, and then: "Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away." Like Wenders building on Shepard. All the non-visual Romanticism of the piece is still better expressed in fourteen lines from two hundred years ago. Originally published: March 31, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Sony, er, shepherds Don't Come Knocking to DVD in a 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer as painterly as the film being rendered. Offhand, I can't think of a disc from 2006 with better colour/saturation, and the seemingly infinite level of detail remains uncompromised by edge-enhancement. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is comparatively modest but no less robust or engaging. Director Wim Wenders has recorded an outstanding commentary track in which he breathlessly composes an encycopledia of Don't Come Knocking. He begins by informing us that the picture was shot in Super35 using anamorphic lenses ("So it's real 'scope, not fake 'scope"), something I didn't even know was possible but that goes some way towards explaining the clarity of the image. While the boundless praise for the overrated Sarah Polley--whom Wenders fought to cast against Sam Shepard's wishes (the Silent Tongue auteur wanted a Native American actress for Polley's role)--and the overmatched Gabriel Mann really got under my skin, it's a fruitful discussion (look no further than the blow-by-blow account of "the sofa sequence") that merits patience for the pleasantries.
Video-based supplements begin with "New York Premiere Featurette" (18 mins.), a post-screening Q&A with Wenders, Mann, and Jessica Lange that's in dire need of subtitles, as neither the moderator nor the participants are miked for the camera--meaning we get a crappy built-in microphone's interpretation of the acoustics inside the DGA Theater. (I gave it a minute or so before folding.) "Sundance Featurette" (12 mins.) is more audible, at least, but sort of useless except as a home movie documenting Don't Come Knocking's pit stop at Sundance for Wenders, Shepard, Polley, Mann, and Fairuza Balk. No surprise that when the snowballs come out, the ironically-named Mann throws like a girl. Lastly, "Interview with Wim Wenders & Eva Marie Saint" (5 mins.) is a junket clip that finds the titular director and star musing on the effects of making movies on the psyche; Saint quickly shoots down the notion that the Shepard character's desire to leave Hollywood behind holds any personal resonance for her and seems to be biting her tongue when Wenders laments that too much of American cinema is story-driven. Previews for Friends with Money, L'Enfant, Quinceañara, Art School Confidential, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Caché, Mountain Patrol: Kekixil, Why We Fight, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Lies and Alibis round out the disc, the first three cuing up on startup. Originally published: August 7, 2006.