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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DON'T COME KNOCKING -- movie review by Porfle

(This review originally appeared online in 2006.)

I usually don't go in much for these "human dramas", so how much I like this sort of movie depends mainly on whether or not I can sit through it without getting bored stiff. (That's pretty obvious, I guess.)

Fortunately, DON'T COME KNOCKING (2005), the only Wim Wenders film I've seen since 1984's PARIS, TEXAS and the occasional U2 video, has a lot going for it. Wenders co-wrote the screenplay with Sam Shepard, whom we all know is a talented writer as well as being one of my favorite actors in films such as THE RIGHT STUFF and the TV mini-series "Streets Of Laredo."

Shepard stars here as Howard Spence, a famous Western actor whose career is on the skids due to an out-of-control lifestyle full of sex, drinking, and brawling (in various combinations). One day it occurs to him that he's not getting any younger, life is passing him by, and if he doesn't try to reconnect with what is really important to him it will soon be too late.

So he hops on a horse and disappears from the Utah desert location of his comeback film, leaving an entire film crew and some anxious studio executives (including George Kennedy, Tim Matheson, and Julia Sweeney in cameo roles) holding the bag.

Since the film has been insured for several million dollars, a special investigator named Mr. Sutter (Tim Roth of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION) is sent to track him down. Mr. Sutter is a fastidious, methodical little guy who'd look more at home behind a desk at H & R Block, but I wouldn't want him looking for me.

Howard hops a bus and makes his way to Elko, Nevada to visit his mother for the first time in decades. She's a widow with a very Zen attitude toward life (a sweet performance by ON THE WATERFRONT's Eva Marie Saint) who calmly accepts Howard's sudden reappearance, and subsequent arrest for getting drunk in a nearby casino and punching a security guard, the way she might accept one of the baseball games she likes to watch on TV getting rained out.

Howard is given a makeshift bedroom in the basement, which she has thoughtfully decorated with remnants of his past such as school banners and photo albums. In one of these, he comes across a photo of a woman he had a fling with years ago while filming a movie on location in Butte, Montana. She becomes the next important thing in life for him to reconnect with, so he sets off for Butte in Dad's old car while Mom waves wistfully in the driveway.

When he gets there, he discovers that Doreen (Jessica Lange) not only owns the bar where they first met, but that the lead singer of the country-and-weird band playing onstage is their son, Earl (Gabiel Mann, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY), who will react violently to Howard's unwanted return.

And as if that weren't enough, the young woman sitting at the bar clutching an urn filled with her mother's ashes is his daughter Sky (DAWN OF THE DEAD's Sarah Polley), from yet another sexcapade during his long-ago visit to Butte. Sky is there to sprinkle her recently-deceased mom's ashes over the nearby countryside, and fate has obligingly seen fit to bring all these important things in life that Howard wants to reconnect with, whether he knew about them or not, crashing down on his head at the same time.

It takes a while to reach this point in the film, but I enjoyed getting there. Sam Shepard's "Howard" is an interesting and likable character, although I wouldn't want to know him before he decided to stop being such a horse's ass all the time (his arrest in Elko hopefully being the final exorcism of his previous lifestyle).

I'm not sure if the behavior of some of the characters is entirely realistic, though. Earl, upon finding out that his father has returned, begins to angrily hurl all of his worldly possessions through the upstairs window of his apartment house, even managing to somehow squeeze a full-sized couch through it. (Which, by the way, later becomes the most important prop in the whole movie.)

Sky, on the other hand, seems ethereally serene about the whole thing, displaying not a hint of the resentment toward Howard one might expect, although I came to like this more forgiving aspect of her character after awhile. Toward the end of the film, she gets a chance to explain to him what a void he's left in her life, and how her fascination with every imagined detail of his phantom presence has become such a lifelong obsession that finally meeting him in person can't even begin to resolve it.

(As Earl stands listening to this, we can see in his face that she's expressing his own feelings as well, although they're buried under years of resentment.) Howard realizes once and for all just how deeply his irresponsible past has affected others, and how much he's missed out on, and he tentatively embraces her, even though he's handcuffed to Mr. Sutter.

It sounds like soap-opera stuff, but Sam Shepard's down-to-earth performance and the touches of humor here and there in the script, along with Wim Wenders' easygoing directorial style and some breathtaking location photography, help to pull it off rather nicely. There's a fine supporting cast filled with familiar faces--Tim Roth, Eva Marie Saint, and Sarah Polley are especially good--and we even get to see another great whacked-out performance by Fairuza Balk (THE CRAFT) as Earl's girlfriend.

Plus, it's always nice to watch Shepard and Jessica Lange together. Some of their scenes are little stagey, but they're still fun, especially when they have an argument in front of a health club while people on stationary bikes and treadmills look on with deadpan interest. And the musical score by T-Bone Burnett (with help from Bono and the Edge on the title song) is awesome.

Unlike a lot of character dramas that seem intent on making you feel like crap, DON'T COME KNOCKING was a lot of fun and left me feeling good at the end. There, we see an old pickup truck cruising down a mountain highway, and the signpost up ahead reads "Divide--1. Wisdom--52." Which is pretty much the way it goes, I guess.

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