Like his character in Don't Come Knocking, Sam Shepard has seen better days. His Howard Spence is given sensitive treatment from his screenplay under the direction of friend Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas). But, the idea of a dissolute actor with no personal value system or self-respect having regret about missed chances has little emotional heft and seems out of touch with reality.
That's a shame given Shepard's pedigree from film and the stage, but his story never connects honestly given the way "memories, relationships, images, emotions, and objects flow into each other." Nevertheless, there is an evocative rendering of the west in its vast expansiveness as a tale of love and family relations moves from Utah and Nevada to Butte, Montana. Butte was the place where Howard made a movie that led to his stardom.
The title comes from a line on an RV that personifies the type of life the 60-year-old actor inhabits. Though well past his prime, he seems to have gotten a meaty role in a new Western directed by a John Huston type (George Kennedy) and parties with young girls in his trailer who wouldn't seem to make up a large portion of his surprisingly wide fan base. One morning he realizes that he is not really alive and rides off the movie set on his horse in his cowboy garb. Wenders, a German director who loves the Western, captures the aura of the genre during Howard's trek before he reunites with his mother (Eva Marie Saint) in Elko, Nevada.
The scenes with his mother begin to reveal the inauthenticity of the story in spite of the chops that an elderly beloved actress like Saint still has to offer. Howard's disorderly and drunken conduct and his mother's sympathy leads to what could be a redemption of sorts from an unfulfilling, narcissistic existence.
The main sections of Don't Come Knocking are situated in Butte, and there Howard reconnects with an old flame, Jessica Lange's Doreen. She is a waitress and runs the local watering hole where they first met. Her son is Earl (Gabriel Mann), a melancholy rock musician who lives in town with his addled girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk). While Mann shows open resentment in Earl's meeting with someone told to be his father, a restrained, somewhat poetic young woman, Sky (Sarah Polley, very effective in My Life Without Me), around Earl's age, carries an urn filled with her mother's ashes. She curiously shadows Howard and Earl, another "outsider" hoping to understand her own past.
Wenders and Shepard fashion a story with a tone mainly reserved, except for some high-pitched moments complements of Mann and Lange. The rational maneuvering of such charged scenes don't have the required emotional underpinnings that would affect even the least attentive viewer. And, while Shepard is sharply framed in a few scenes, especially in a hotel room, or on a couch supposedly tossed high above from an apartment, his characterization with particular facial mannerisms suggest that he isn't much more than someone who has gotten by on his rugged charms.
Images like an old scrapbook or a vintage Packard stand out in a picture probably too self-indulgent for its own good with actors willing to perform with someone like Wenders. And, Polley's deceased mother was a big fan of Shepard. But, as Don't Come Knocking saunters on, it ebbs more than flows becoming more detached as its story and one character parallels Jim Jarmusch's more persuasively offbeat Broken Flowers.
Thankfully, T-Bone Burnett's score resonates more often than not when trying to connect scenes and the title track is flavorsome. Better yet is the lustrous expansiveness provided by lenser Franz Lustig, a homage to the spirit of the "Marlboro Man."