France / Germany / USA, 2005
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 10 July 2006
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, which has been advertised as a road movie, remains for the most part loyal to its marketing. Howard Spence, a washed-up and graying actor whose career is now upstaged by his intemperate lifestyle, decides to abandon his most recent role — an idealistic cowboy driven by hackneyed sentiments of grandeur — to both pursue and escape his past. A life dominated by alcoholism, drug use, and rampant womanizing is soon deluged by sensations of worthlessness and regret. When he visits his mother, the introspective dejection he feels only deepens when an old secret is revealed—a long-ago tryst in Montana resulted in the birth of a child. Drawn by a vague but penetrating impulse, Howard migrates north to accomplish something yet undefined. At the same time, he is pursued across the American West by a dry studio flunky determined to secure the actor’s return.
The story, co-written by Wenders and star Sam Shepard, evokes the savage, wanton atmosphere of John Ford westerns, only adapted to the present. Howard Spence, the fallen hero, returns to his solitary paradise in search of purpose and redemption, only to find his expectations mere intangible delusions; the town is deserted, his ranch is a small hotel room, and his saloon perch is a damaged sofa in the street. Doreen, Howard’s long-abandoned love, is the owner of a café whose blithesome demeanor hides a churning dismay over the circumstances of her life. The authoritative lawman coming to apprehend him is a lonely, cuff-wielding lackey whose idea of ecstasy is finishing a crossword puzzle. And Earl is the son smashed on fantasy; analogous to other son-like figures in cinema — Martin Pawley in The Searchers, the Schofield Kid in Unforgiven — Earl’s lack of fatherly guidance has produced an unyielding, arrogant, and mostly blind self-reliance. However, Howard’s main adversary isn’t a renegade from his past or despotic lawman; when time comes for a showdown, he must confront himself and his past decisions. His elaborate and unmanageable independence, which can be seen in his son, has caused a disassociation with the outside world. The five minutes he spends driving on-screen exemplify his character. It’s him astride his horse, alone, in command and galloping in from the horizon; nothing is distressing, everything is perfect.
Beginning with the film’s opening shot — a weather-carved rock formation that seems to simulate us looking out from behind a mask — Wenders toys with the idea of identity. Howard Spence, his career built on portraying diverse characters, struggles to explicate his own self. When he passes storefronts in Montana, the camera loses him in a frenzy of reflections. In a scene late in the film, as Howard and Doreen walk a city sidewalk discussing their future together, his epiphany about her is violently rebuffed. Even as the film ends, we’re left with conflicting assumptions about Howard Spence: who he is, and what he hoped to find in Montana, are still mysteries.
The soundtrack, produced by legendary T-Bone Burnett, is somber and meditative, almost uncertain in its delivery; played over Franz Lustig’s ethereal cinematography, which captures Nevada and Montana landscapes and prismatic sunsets with an involved devotion, every song embodies the burdened individuality and romantic perseverance of the Old West. “A Lonely Man,” sung with stark grace by Gabriel Mann’s Earl in an eerie Lynchian bar, is both an ode to his estranged father and the forlorn men of yesteryear:
He’s a lonely man who’s lost his only love;
It’s hiding in his system like a drug.
It’s just around the corner there,
It’s hiding from him everywhere;
He’s a lonely man who’s lost his love.
He’s a lonely man who finds no one to blame.
He knows that love’s no war and life’s no game.
He has an anger in his soul,
That holds to love and won’t let go.
He’s a lonely man who finds no blame.
The supporting cast, including Eva Marie Saint as Howard’s mother and Jessica Lange as Doreen, builds a foundation beneath Sam Shepard’s performance that elevates his character above the clichés associated with rough-edged cowboys. A life-hardened man whose youth is a germane mystery to us—a confrontation in a casino offers the only clue to his adolescence—time and indulgence have spent thirty years carving their mark; his mother doesn’t recognize him, and his son sees him only as an old man. His face, puckered and expressionless, writes volumes, and with one longing stare or fabricated smile he channels more distress and emotion than a page of dialogue ever could. There is no excitement in his step, no joy in his voice. For Howard Spence, exhilaration is escaping into the desert, where he trades his horse and clothes for a lowly man’s tattered possessions. The closing rendition of “A Lonely Man,” sung with a tone more upbeat and evocative of Country Western’s brazen youth, when songsters like Johnny Cash sang above a slow and untamed cadence, is played over a highway sign that exemplifies Howard’s life: Separation is near, accessible, easy, but wisdom comes with time, endurance, strife.
Aside from the wink-and-grin cardboard sign hanging prominently in Howard’s trailer, the title Don’t Come Knocking denotes our contentment in obliviousness. Earl, finally confronting his father, cries out for the old man’s absence—he never wanted to know, just as the revelation about Earl’s existence jarred Howard. Though some scenes are slowed by an over-concentration on sentiments, most of the story remains ummarred by triteness. And while links between this and other Wenders films are inescapable, the similarities between Don’t Come Knocking and last year’s two great on-the-road tragicomedies, Broken Flowers and Transamerica, are glaring. Together, the three create an inadvertent trilogy about loneliness, self-exile, and redemption in middle-aged America, adding legitimacy to a genre that, until now, has suffered under the spell of banality.