Twenty years after making the great Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard reunite for Don't Come Knocking, another tale of personal discovery and familial redemption informed by Wenders' enduring fascination with the West. The two films even share the same existential opening: An aging man walks alone in an arid expanse toward an unknown destination, ultimately embarking on a quest to find himself and his family. And yet something's missing this time around, mainly because Wenders and Shepard seem oddly detached from the material, both going through the expected motions without ever finding the proper tone. It doesn't help that the film premièred at Cannes alongside Jim Jarmusch's superior Broken Flowers, which tells a similar story about a lonely lothario's search for his son, but achieves just the right balance between understated comedy and the pervasive feeling of regret. By that standard, Don't Come Knocking is all over the place.
In a role tailor-made for himself, Shepard stars as a washed-up star of Westerns whose diminished stature has accompanied an increased appetite for drugs, alcohol, and women half his age. When the film opens, Shepard has just disappeared from the set of his latest opus and the crew is completely flummoxed, not least because they're shooting in the middle of the desert. Making a getaway on horseback, Shepard slips onto a bus and visits his mother (Eva Marie Saint, looking very much alive), who informs him rather belatedly that he had a son more than two decades ago. Looking for a sliver of redemption, Shepard heads up to the bleak Western pit-stop of Butte, Montana, where he reconnects with ex-lover Jessica Lange and tracks down their son Gabriel Mann, who reacts to news of his long-lost father by hurling all his belongings out the window. Meanwhile, another grown-up Shepard progeny (Sarah Polley) enters the picture, clutching an urn filled with her late mother's ashes.
As much as any European filmmaker of his generation, Wenders has always been obsessed with American culture, landscapes, and iconography, so it's little surprise that the backdrop is more compelling than the foreground. Wenders' affection for the Hollywood Western is apparent in the movie-within-a-movie, but more vivid still is his portrait of Butte as an otherworldly place, a once-thriving city trapped forever in time. Other elements of Don't Come Knocking are significantly less assured, particularly the seesaw tone between over-the-top melodrama (Mann, behaving like a feral animal) and perplexingly offbeat comedy (Fairuza Balk as Mann's half-crazed girlfriend, Tim Roth as a relentless completion-bond company rep). It's a beautiful mess, but it's a mess all the same.