The reunion of Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard, coming some 20 years after Paris, Texas, demonstrates both the change and sameness in their art. Don’t Come Knocking moves carefully and covers lots of ground, revisits familiar themes and exposes new ground. Alternately gorgeous and forlorn, restless and sanguine, the film considers both the endurance of myth and the turmoil of its transformation.
Shepard plays Howard Spence, aging star of big-budget Hollywood Westerns and attendant mythologies, one being that such movies weren’t actually made when he was working. But if Howard is an anachronism, Don’t Come Knocking also uses him as a sign, not a measure of reality, but ideology and belief. He first appears galloping away from his current project, a shoot in Utah appropriately titled Phantom of the West. (More specifically, he first appears through a rock formation that recalls the usual movie-binocular frame, a device that includes — implicates — you in the meaning-making process.) Having suddenly realized that his life has been a mess of substance abuses and behavioral excesses, Howard seeks the usual Shepardian redemption, not quite closure or forgiveness, but some fundamental knowledge of self. In part, this means taking responsibility for all the havoc he’s caused over so many years, but Howard’s not quite ready for full-on culpability.
After swapping clothes with gnarly James Gammon — who can’t believe his good luck, suddenly bestowed with new boots, shiny spurs, and fancy shirt, not to mention “a pretty good horse” — Howard resumes his escape. He rents a car and heads off to find mom (Eva Marie Saint), calling her from his cell phone as he drives. “You’re breaking up on my, ma,” he says wearily, then hangs up. Though she hasn’t heard from him in 30 years, she welcomes his visit: she is, after all a mother in a Sam Shepard script. She’s resilient in ways her son can’t fathom.
At the same time, another traveler is headed toward Howard, though neither quite knows it. His daughter Sky (Sarah Polley) carries with her an urn filled wit the ashes of her mother, a woman Howard barely knew, but knew well enough to make Sky. Howard has no notion of her existence, she keeps her mother’s history (including a photo of Howard) in a flash drive she wears around her neck, at once a talisman and a whole set of memories, all helping Sky to understand who she is. Or believes she is.
Similarly, Howard’s mom has kept a scrapbook, charting his career over time even when he forgot her, or at least forgot to be in touch with her. And so mom has a collection of tabloid clippings, marking Howard’s drinking, his movie titles, his scandals and his aging. By the end of her record, he’s looking ragged and gray-faced. Howard doesn’t know she’s kept this compilation, only steals a look one night when he can’t sleep, in the bedroom she’s maintained as it was when he was a child. It’s not that mom seems particularly sentimental, but she does attend to rituals, leaving plastic flowers at her long-dead husband’s gravesite, keeping up his old car in the garage (yet another mythic Americana sign), waiting for it to become necessary or even just useful, again.
In Howard’s relationship with his mother, you see Shepard’s usual questions posed: how to sustain family over crises and loss? How to create a sense of identity that persists over time? Unable to put down roots (only acting out a national, dream-factoried fiction, with all the violence and cruelty that goes with the fabled West), Howard is mystified by his mother’s stubborn groundedness, both repulsed and enchanted. Frustrated, he tries drinking again, turning himself inside out in an evening at a casino; the next morning, returned to his mother by a local police officer who knows her, Howard is stumped. “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore,” he sighs.
At which point mom throws another wrench into his emotional works, revealing as if by accident that she’s heard from another woman he knew 20 years ago, who had his child. Asking to see “pictures of your little family,” mom pushes Howard into a next dimension of responsibility; following minor protestations that he never knew about this, Howard gets in his father’s car and drives to Butte, in search of what Wenders calls “a life he never lived.”
Another familiar-seeming Shepard character, Doreen (Jessica Lange) still lives where Howard left her. In fact, she now runs the café where he met her; their son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), plays rock songs in local joints, disdains his punky-goth and wholly generous girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk), and has no idea Howard exists. On learning his lineage, Earl explodes, furious at Doreen and Howard both, and taking it out on Amber. But the film extends the “father-son business” that shaped Paris, Texas. Here, rather than remaining caught behind peep show windows, like Nastassja Kinski’s Jane, Doreen, Sky, and Amber come into their own, and Howard begins to recede.
It’s arguable that Howard is ever receding, an image of the past, a hard-drinking man’s man whose history has left him nowhere, a “phantom” projected by his various audiences. This time he appears behind a window, as he decides at last to do the right thing with Doreen, asking her to “come back” to him. She laughs out loud. His surprise at her refusal to play the part he expects is refracted by the film’s view of this “picture of [his] little family.” The scene cuts from the sidewalk where Howard is performing himself as best he can to the perspective from inside a storefront gym: two unenthusiastic extras gaze on the scene, not quite comprehending and frankly, not much caring.
But as Howard’s self-performance is increasingly irrelevant to Doreen and his kids, it’s the focus of the studio’s insurance agent, dogged and effete Sutter (Tim Roth). Asserting his desire to find his man, to make him accountable for his “totally irresponsible, immoral behavior, not unlike many members of his profession,” Sutter visits Howard’s mother (who lies outright to him while she serves him cookies and milk, treating him like the child she sees in him). They’re men of another time and place, breaking or following rules that no longer make sense. Separately alone, Sutter and Howard are more lost than they can know.