For some reason, cowboys are in these days. Or at least cowboy hats. I'm not sure the men underneath actually qualify as cowboys -- more like drifters. As Wim Wenders' new film, Don't Come Knocking, begins, the drifter, Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) is in full gallop (accompanied by a theme song that sounds a lot like Morricone). For the first third of the film, we follow him on a seemingly aimless path away -- from responsibility, from a b-movie film set where he is the star -- desert landscape gloriously unraveling behind him. He is as inscrutable as a tumbleweed. Why is he running? Where is he going? If you get caught up in these questions, the whole film will seem like an exercise in futility, as they are the same questions asked (no, sung) at the end of the film.
One thing is certain, even though Howard's destination is unknown, his path is achingly familiar. His is the tired, old bad boy story. You know, the one where a late middle-aged man discovers he has a grown child somewhere and feels compelled to go and see it for himself. Basically, Don't Come Knocking is Wim Wenders' and Sam Shepard's remake of Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch/Bill Murray picture in which another inscrutable man finds out he has a kid and goes searching through his little black book to find him. Broken Flowers featured quirky Jim Jarmusch flourishes, Don't Come Knocking features the same by Wim Wenders. There are even moments when Don't Come Knocking seems to have collided with Twin Peaks. A slow, deserted small town floats by at dusk, all candy colors and encroaching darkness. An almost nightmarishly dreamy band plays in the local roadhouse tavern -- their narcotic sound incongruous in the small town bar.
I guess the trouble with building a story around a character who doesn't understand -- and never will come to understand -- his own motivations is that the dramatic fireworks that emanate from his actions feel just as un-tethered as he does. While on the run from the bond company that has financed his latest film, Howard discovers he has a grown child and high-tails it to Butte, Montana to reunite with the kid, Earl, and his mother, Doreen after a more than twenty-year absence. Earl (Gabriel Mann) reacts badly, throwing everything he owns out the window of his small apartment. But the tantrum feels forced. We'll never know Howard and we don't know Earl, so we have no connection to his emotional outburst. It feels cliché, not like what his character would actually do, but like what his character thinks he is supposed to do. When Jessica Lange's Doreen finally loses it toward the end of the film and has to fight her urges to both slap and kiss Howard, I found myself thinking how hard it must have been for the actress to get it up for a scene that both came out of nowhere and could be seen coming from miles away. It's like these characters are all just pale echoes of better characters written much more eloquently a long time ago.
Of course there are moments. Wim Wenders flourishes are nothing to be sneezed at and Sam Shepard can still write an amazingly poetic speech. At the beginning of the film, actions are interrupted, musical reveries suddenly cut short, dialogue is chopped mid-sentence as Wenders jumps back and forth between Howard's aimless journey and the effect his sudden departure is having on the film production he has abandoned. Howard's mother, as played by Eva Marie Saint, is just fun to watch no matter what she says or does.
Throughout the film, Sky (Sarah Polley), carrying her dead mother's ashes in a big blue urn, shadows Howard as he wanders downtown Butte. While on the road in a pick-up truck, she carries on a conversation with her mother (in the urn, which she has lovingly buckled into the passenger seat -- a great, and very tender touch). Polley's Sky delivers the one really moving speech in the film, cutting through all the bullshit and getting right to the meat of the matter. Trouble is, it comes at the end of the film, after she's spent the bulk of her time skulking around and having awkward half-interactions with the other characters.
In another scene, Howard sits on Earl's couch, in a pile of Earl's belongings thrown out into the middle of the street and watches the day go by. The camera tracks around him sitting in the rubble and watching time pass, fluffy clouds float in a big Montana sky, cars roll slowly by, an ice cream truck drifts past, its song distorted and sorely out of tune, day turns to night.
In the end, it doesn't add up. The characters aren't real, the trite situation is just a set-up for reactions that feel forced. In one scene, while Earl's girlfriend, Amber (Fairuza Balk) dances on his couch, while he plays out his frustration on electric guitar in the middle of the street, I found myself thinking, "what is 'cool'?" Is it a series of costumes and poses, disconnected scenes and gestures? It made me wonder why Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray are so good at producing these gestures, and how they once were so great at making things that were much more than just collections of gestures. Can Don't Come Knocking even compare to Paris, Texas? Absolutely not. Everything Jarmusch has created since Stranger Than Paradise, including Broken Flowers, has paled in comparison to his early masterpiece. Or David Lynch -- Blue Velvet. They made the real thing once and now they are just making things that refer back to that reality. The gesture is just hollow and empty.
Don't Come Knocking opens March 24, 2006