It seems everyone these days wants to be a cowboy, although “cowboys” have undergone a few major make-overs this year: in Brokeback Mountain (the most obvious of the big cowboy films) the traditionally assumed hetero genre was given the queer treatment; in Down in the Valley Edward Norton plays a disturbed cowboy-obsessed man; and in Nick Cave’s The Proposition, the Western genre heads down under to colonial Australia and instead of cowboys and Indians, we get the Australian-equivalent of Irish outlaws and Aborigines.
Even George Bush seems to be intent on muscling his way into this hot trend: he has been photographed, recently, running around on his ranch wearing 10-gallon hats, boots and blue jeans and riding horses. It seems too fitting that uber-masculine playwright Sam Shepard joined in the fray with his personal, vivid collaboration with Wim Wenders, Don’t Come Knocking, a film about an aging, regretful “cowboy” film star who is seeking a major change. It is not a shock that the first shots of the actor are of him galloping through the desert on horseback. But what could have easily descended into self-parody or cliché turns out to be a pleasantly surprising, heart-felt rumination on self discovery and lost love.
Shepard plays Howard Spence, a celebrated western personality who has fallen on hard times. His latest antics on the set of his current film include hookers, drugs, and plenty of tabloid coverage. Spence’s odyssey begins as he leaves the film’s set and takes off on a quest to recover some of his missing pieces. He begins by going home to his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in many years.(The role of his mother is played by the legendary Eva Marie Saint, who is still as luminous as the day she appeared opposite Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront; she also pops up in a nice Q&A in the film’s extras alongside Wenders.) Little does Spence know that the film’s insurance man, Sutter (Tim Roth), is hot on his trail, eager to force him into finishing the cheesy film-within-a-film (called, cheekily Phantom of the West, one of the film’s early titles). Also following Spence is a young, mysterious woman named Sky (Sarah Polley, expressing much depth with little dialogue), who apparently is quite content to carry around the ashes of her dead mother and stalk the actor.
Shepard, known for being something of a tough guy/western icon, underplays his part and is able to turn in the most personal and tender performance of his career as an actor (the scene in which Shepard looks through a scrapbook put together by his mother from tabloid headlines is particularly well-played). That he actually wrote the part for himself is quite impressive. Wenders talks in his extensive audio commentary about being very surprised at the humor and fragility with which the actor was writing, and recalls asking Shepard if he was even going to be able to realize the character. Luckily for everyone involved, Shepard pulls off not only the acting challenge with flying colors, but also the scripting duties: his characters have always been complex and challenging, but rarely have they been as warm and engaging.
Spence is able to remain one step ahead of being “captured” until he comes face-to-face with one of his past’s most haunting ghosts: Doreen. Doreen is the woman he left behind after shooting a film many years ago in Butte, Montana. She was apparently pregnant when he took off, unbeknownst to Spence, so he says. Acting on a clue from his mother, he immediately undertakes a picturesque trek across the American west — this time in a classic car rather than via horseback — to track down the family he left behind.
The scenery during this trek is splendid. Wenders talks with vigor, on the commentary track, about how he shamelessly “borrows” from his favorite American painter, Edward Hopper. He says that the artist was the most major influence on his camera-work and in each frame it is apparent: the colors and the stillness of every scene invoke the painter’s works with bold greens, reds and yellows dominating the shots. The color and the lighting of the film add a nostalgic, almost kitschy quality that shows that, for the residents of the small town, time has really stopped moving.
What gives the film another added dimension of realism and tenderness is the involvement of Shepard’s long-time love, Jessica Lange, as another woman he left behind. (This film marks their fourth acting collaboration overall. The pair became a couple in the early ’80s after making the film Frances together, but it is rare for either performer to even speak about the other in public.)Wenders says that he didn’t want any other actor for the part of Doreen, but because of a long-time agreement between Shepard and Lange that one parent would always stay at home with the children, the logistics of actually shooting them together became complicated (Wenders says that unlike Spence, Shepard is a devoted, present father). When Lange became officially involved in the film, Wenders said that Shepard re-wrote all of her character’s dialogue specifically for her.
In one of the disc’s few fulfilling extras, Lange (looking annoyed and uneasy in front of a large crowd at the film’s Director’s Guild premiere) says that there was a “familiarity” with Shepard during their scenes and the years of love, hurt, and anger in their real lives are all apparent in the scene in which they first meet. What has happened between Lange and Shepard over the years may be a “secret”, but in their scenes together, there is an electric, good-natured chemistry that prevails. In one particular climactic scene, in which Doreen confronts Shepard about his selfishness and how it has affected their son, Lange’s fury seems to cross the line between acting and realism: according to Wenders, the actress dislocated her shoulder from hitting Shepard so hard with her purse.
Shepard, Lange, and Wenders are all revisiting familiar themes that have dominated their filmographies: the wild man soothing his inner demons; the strong, bitter mother who makes it on her own; and the foreign-born outsider looking fondly into some of the most treasured aspects of Americana. These are three individuals that, while each in possession of a commanding talent, seem underappreciated in the world of cinema today. It is very rewarding to see each of them bringing a vital piece of themselves to this collaboration.
Thanks to these fine actors what is, essentially, a typical movie about a cowboy, becomes something more: a vivid, genuine exploration of a hell-raiser entering his twilight years apologetically and with an open heart. Don’t Come Knocking proves that there is always room for another version of “the cowboy” in film.