It's a fact that Wenders's standing in film history has been somehow diminished by the steadily decreasing displays of genius that catapulted him to auteur stardom in the 1980s with his Wings of Desire, followed by mildly received and sometimes disappointing numbers such as Faraway, So Close!(1993), The End of Violence(1997), The Million Dollar Hotel(2000) and Land of Plenty(2004). It seems like the German director, despite his knack for making films that appear 'culturally important' perhaps stuck to hard to the post-modern boat which made him famous but which by the 1990s had become rusty and dated.
Don't Come Knocking looks almost like an 1980s period film, when the Talking Heads made True Stories and Jim Jamursh became the epitome of cool. I mean that as a compliment; Wenders is good at playing with iconography and making poetry out of it, no doubt a great achievement for an artist working with moving images. But what he gets wrong when dealing with the cinematically saturated vistas of America is his self-perception as a traveler when he is, in fact, a tourist in a foreign land.
Shepard plays Howard Spence, a veteran Western actor on the wrong side of the fifties, but who still retains his rugged good looks, despite all the boozing, drugs and womanizing, which we find out in a sequence where he leafs through a book of clippings about him.
Howard seeks refuge at his mother's house (Eva Marie Saint) after running away from the set of his latest production. We have to accept that Westerns are still being made as well as Howard's standing as a contemporary star cowboy, but Wenders is dealing here with a mythical, hyper-real America which justifies this lack of anchorage in factuality.
His mother, who he hasn't seen him for thirty years (except for the newspapers stories she collects), puts him up in her home overlooking the brightly lit town of Elko in Nevada while an investigator called Sutter (Tim Roth, a somewhat wasted character in the movie thanks to a rather sloppy performace by Roth) tries to track him down.
From Elko Howard heads for Butte, Montana, and then the reason he left the set becomes clearer. He wants to track down a son whose existence only came to his knowledge when his mother mentioned a phone call from a woman years before. The town of Butte is a real-life film set and it looks almost like Wenders made the film as an excuse to photograph this old mining town with its imposing buildings erected alongside wind-blown streets that stretch into gigantic vistas – this architectural aspect of the film alone justifies its viewing. It's a kind of synthesis of the Americana Wenders is obsessed with.
Spencer tracks down the mother of his son, Doreen (Jessica Lange), a contently settled and resigned waitress whose life moves to a completely contrary tune to Spencer's. He finds his son singing in a pub during a scene that is redolent of the one in which Nick Cave plays in a club in Wings of Desire, singing a sultry country blues ballad to a carefully arranged, staring small audience (the rather haunting score is by T-Bone Burnett).
The Butte-set section of the film fills the rest, as well as most, of the running time, with Howard drifting around town. Besides Earl and Doreen, there's also a young woman called Sky (Sarah Polley) who follows Howard around while cradling an urn with her mother's ashes in it. By then we got the idea of the film and it all starts to grind a bit until we finally arrive at the culminating scene that shows Howard sitting for hours on a couch in a deserted street until the camera finally does a circular pan around him to usher in the moment of revelation provided by Sky.
So, is this film about a middle-aged man trying to reconstruct his past and a metaphor of American rootlessness? Perhaps. But reading too much into it would be like trying to find life in a dull, abandoned town. I'd rather simply remember Don't Come Knocking as a filmic equivalent of a Bourbon-soaked blues ballad with a dash of Teutonic melancholy. If that's a good or bad thing, it's up to each individual viewer, but there's definitely something to be savoured if we look from this point of view.
Don't Come Knocking is currently playing in the UK.