German-born director Wim Wenders has developed a small-stage sense of the American West that can rival John Ford's grand vision. There's an authenticity that's created by both directors' insistence that story evolve out of place, rather than the setting serving merely as a backdrop. It's all tied together: the characters' lives, this place they're in, and the story that simmers in the hot Western sun.
Playwright-turned-actor Sam Shepard stars in and wrote the screenplay to "Don't Come Knocking," about a has-been cowboy actor who rides off the set one day and into the sunset of his downhill life. From that horseback ride where he leaves the production company in his dust at Arches National Park (where the real film crew village doubled as the movie set), he heads for his hometown of Butte, Montana, passing through Elko Nevada along the way.
Franz Lustig's photography and Wenders' exquisite sense of quietly dramatic shots give the film a distinctive look, with striking juxtapositions of dilapidated but colorful buildings rising like Ford's Monument Valley rock formations against a spacious sky, underscoring the smallness of this big man and his suddenly insignificant and lonely life. Howard Spence (Shepard) was a Hollywood bad boy, a ladies' man who, even as a craggy-faced falling star, managed to draw several women at a time to his trailer for between scenes diversions. There's no explanation for his sudden departure, but in "Don't Come Knocking," an introspective and leisurely paced film, Spence seems as numb in every scene as Bill Murray's character in "Lost in Translation." There are more similarities, as well as there are to the short stories of Raymond Carver, in which loneliness, numbness, and alcohol go hand-in-hand.
That sense of Carver Country is obliquely confirmed in the commentary, with Wenders describing a number of shots as being influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper, who also inspired Carver. Carver's lonely protagonists always knew their lives were on a downward spiral, but they were too stupefied to do anything about it except feel even more isolated. Such is the case with Spence, who seems unable to take the positive steps that would reverse his course.
In the commentary, Wenders says that it took him 25 years to get Shepard in front of the camera—a curious remark, since Shepard has appeared in films as an actor since 1970. That can only mean that Wenders wanted his screenwriter-collaborator on "Paris, Texas" to star in that film, and for whatever reason Shepard declined. Wenders is obviously elated that he agreed this time, and Shepard does seem like a natural fit. So does Jessica Lange as the woman he had an affair with in Butte while filming there twenty-some years ago. Now he's got a picture of her and a vague memory of his mother (Eva Marie Saint) telling him that he's got a son, and so he seeks her out.
It's a "Searchers" kind of film, with Spence sort of looking to rekindle something with his old flame, her son (Gabriel Mann as Earl) looking to smash anything in sight after learning about his father, a young woman (Sarah Polley) whose mother recently died looking for both men to tell them something about their lives, and an insurance agent (Tim Roth) who's like a modern-day bounty hunter sworn to bring Spence back to the film company.
Filmed in Arches, Moab, Salt Lake City (Utah), Elko, Wendover (Nevada), Butte, and L.A., "Don't Come Knocking" features a lot of two-shots and open-ended scenes which are complemented nicely by a largely T-Bone Burnett soundtrack. Some of the scenes with long monologues can feel melodramatic, and viewers might shift uncomfortably in their seats while we watch Spence sit on a couch for what seems like a day-and-a-half. Other times it can get pretty heavy-handed, with the girl Sky and the urn she clutches a grim visual symbol of Spence's past. But for the most part the latest Wenders-Shepard collaboration is a success.
Video: Mastered in High Definition, "Don't Come Knocking" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the colors—especially the brilliant lights of a casino and the deep reds of the buildings in Butte—are highly saturated, with no significant haloing. Wenders said he shot in Cinemascope using Super 35mm film with anamorphic Hawk lenses, and the picture is sharp and clear.
Audio: The audio is almost as good, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and French subtitles (the film was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival). There's a pretty resonant bass and the treble's not too tinny. No complaints here.
Extras: The bonus features are a mixed bag. Wenders' commentary is among the best I've heard. It's unassuming but intelligent and packed as tightly full of information and insights as a suitcase at the end of a long vacation. From the minute the low-key director admits, "Frankly, I hate to be talking while you're watching my movie," you know you're going to get an honest and perfectly candid account of the film and filming. He shares technical and aesthetic decisions, pinpoints locations, talks about the cast, points out things like Shepard's son riding stunt double for him, and even manages a few jokes along the way. When a film-crew assistant on a Segue tools around the dusty camp, Wenders tells how it was their real filming set-up but added, "Of course, these assistants are not my real assistants. I would have fired them if they showed up with that ridiculous scooter." He points out that the colorful casino was in Wendover, not Elko, and tells how Roth was "pissed" that he didn't have a scene with Eva Marie Saint, so Shepard wrote one. "And he pulled the same thing later with Jessica Lange." Directors who listen to this commentary may be reluctant to hire the actor after hearing such things. One minute Wenders is sharing anecdotes (as he did in telling how Lange dislocated her shoulder whacking real-life hubby Shepard with a purse in one scene) and the next minute he's talking about Edward Hopper, or the Bob Dylan connection that Shepard and Burnett share, or the reason he had to film in Butte (which goes back to Dashiell Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest). All of which is to say that the commentary covers a lot of ground, and there's very little dead space.
Other features aren't as stellar. The New York Premiere featurette is basically a fly-on-the-wall view of the glitz at the opening, with Wenders' remarks nothing special. Same with a Sundance featurette, which is more you-are-there newsreel footage. An Entertainment News Service interview with Wenders and Saint is marred by the off-camera interviewer's dumb questions, though Saint and Wenders save him with engaging responses that give more information than was asked for.
One curious thing: the pre-publicity and cover notes mention deleted scenes, and Wenders even refers to them. But none are to be found on this disc.
Bottom Line: Wenders has a few negative things to say about story-driven films that dominate Hollywood and speaks of characters today as being "victims of plot." That tells you as much about his aesthetic philosophy as anything. There isn't a lot of plot in "Don't Come Knocking," but interesting characters and strikingly memorable settings more than make up for any slightness in narrative.