There are many ways into Don't Come Knocking, but there's only one way out: This is the work of Wim Wenders, the lugubrious German director in love with his Euro-vision of Americana, and of Sam Shepard, the playwright who's made a career of exposing the tormented heart of the American West.
Why didn't they think of this collaboration sooner? It's like somebody finally got peanut butter on somebody's else chocolate. Shepard and Wenders created the story together, then Shepard wrote it and Wenders directed. Their offspring is an absorbing experiment in creative genetics: It's equal parts father and father, a late-career summing up in tandem, and an elegant piece of art cinema, with dozens of little thematic tidbits and set pieces to ruminate on.
Don't Come Knocking opens with the first of its myriad metaphors. Through what looks like the jagged eyeholes of a Zorro mask, we catch two peeks of a lazy blue sky on an otherwise black movie screen. Soon the blackness fades to ... a ridge, where erosion and time have cut two gigantic holes in the rock.
Wenders then treats us to a long, barren landscape panorama before coming to rest on the interlopers. It's the set of Phantom of the West, shooting on a remote Utah prairie, and everyone is looking for Howard Spence (Shepard), a washed-up movie star making a comeback. But Spence, childlike from years of illusory living, is making his getaway on horseback ... that is, running away from home.
His odyssey (and his instinct) takes him to his mother (Eva Marie Saint), whom he hasn't seen in 30 years. She's so nonchalant about his sudden homecoming that you'll wonder if she's an angel, or just lobotomized. She, too, has changed: moved from her Nevada ranch to a home overlooking a casino. She's kept track of his career ... the fame, booze, drugs, sex, prison and arrested development ... in a scrapbook with every tabloid article ever written about his exploits.
One clipping mentions a child by a stripper, and Mom tells Howard that he has a son by a waitress (Jessica Lange) he met decades earlier on a movie shoot in Butte. So it's off to Montana, barely a step ahead of his one-man posse (Tim Roth), a nihilistic completion bonder in dark glasses whose company has insured Phantom of the West for $32.5 million.
For Wenders, Don't Come Knocking is another stab at American iconography. He's fond of the West (as in Paris, Texas), and also of Hollywood detective films (Roth's parodic characters pays homage). But at 60, Wenders finally has a sense of humor, and as we pass through small towns on the long road home, he stops at every allegorical rummage sale he can find. There's a car covered in mirrors, a canary-yellow musical ice-cream truck, and a dive bar in Butte where Howard's angry Goth son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), sings morose New Age tunes and plays guitar alongside his freaky chatterbox girlfriend (Fairuza Balk).
Finally, there's Sky (Sarah Polley), Howard's daughter, whose golden mane and tranquil mien eventually infect everyone. She walks around with her mother's ashes, seeking reconciliation, and when Howard's two sudden siblings make peace with each other, they take to the road, singing a jaunty song about their Dad. A road sign marks the distance to the towns up head: Divide, 1; Wisdom, 52. If they can get past the first, they stand a chance of reaching the other.
Wenders stages Don't Come Knocking with the certitude you'd expect of a veteran aesthete: He's contemplative but never dull, only occasionally overtly stylish, and still masterful at anesthetizing a climax. And yet, like Nicholas Ray, the American director whose work he admired, his direction has a nervous energy that won't let you look away. Shepard, too, has mellowed. He musters up only one macho slugfest, between father and son, and it's much more pathetic than perilous.
There's a touch of vanity in Don't Come Knocking for Shepard to think that a movie star's wayward life matters, and also to think that he should play the role himself. His craggy face has grown into his still very middling acting talent. Lange, a wooden actress whom I've never liked, feels comfortably familiar now, like worn leather. Best of all is Mann, a scrawny, appealing actor whose character is at once creepy, fiery, affable and demure. Through Earl and Sky, Wenders and Shepard offer more hope to their spirited younger generation than they do to their aimless elders.