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Don’t Come Knocking is a spirited black comedy/western/road movie featuring a dramatic climax on the streets of beautiful downtown Butte, Montana.

Shepard basks in the aftermath of a fight with his son
Shepard basks in the aftermath of a fight with his son

Phantom of the West

Don’t Come Knocking reunites famed German director Wim Wenders with Sam Shepard more than 20 years after their collaboration on Paris, Texas won Wenders the Golden Palm at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

This time, their story focuses on Howard Spence, played by Shepard. Howard has made a career out of starring in Westerns and avoiding reality. While on the set of his latest cowboy epic, Howard decides it’s time to take off, in the middle of shooting the movie, and confront some things that have been bugging him.

His first stop is to visit his mother (played by screen legend Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest), who clues him in about the child he had with a woman in Butte, Montana, many, many years ago. Paging through his mom’s photo albums and scrapbooks, Howard comes to realize what a confused, manic life he’s led in Hollywood. Money, fame, babes, drugs, assaults, accidents; his has been the perfect life for tabloid fodder.

From there, Howard heads north, to Butte, to finally clear the air and hone in on his responsibilities.

Wisdom 52

Don’t Come Knocking finds Wenders in fine form, once again exploring the rugged, vast, empty terrain of the American West, and there are plenty of things to admire about the film.

At the top of the list is the cast, with Shepard embodying the everyman who got all the right breaks, then blew it on all the wrong things.

Lending solid support are Eva Marie Saint and, as Howard’s one-time lover, Jessica Lange (Titus), along with Tim Roth (Dark Water) as Sutter, a bond company agent on a mission to track down and bring back the elusive Howard Spence.

Also on hand among Wenders’ abundant on-the-fringe characters are Howard’s son Earl (Gabriel Mann, The Bourne Supremacy), a perpetually on-edge young man with a penchant for throwing things when he gets mad; and his daughter, Sky (Sarah Polley, Dawn of the Dead), who also hasn’t fallen very far from the tree, spending a considerable amount of time walking the streets of Butte while carrying her mother’s ashes in an urn.

Wenders has a solid eye for a sense of place; the characters are right at home in Butte, which is both stuck in the past and helpless to fight the tide of modernity. Howard and his old flame have a fight on the plank sidewalk in downtown Butte… right in front of the spandex citizens doing cardio in the storefront gym.

Knocking It

Having said that, some of the movie’s artifice is too obvious. The cynical view of filmmaking is lightly funny, jabbing that the Hollywood system doesn’t allow directors to make movies, instead giving overpowering charge to insurance companies.

The making of the movie within the movie features a first assistant director who rides a Segway that, in an act of over-compensation, he uses to lord over his on-foot assistants. And, as previously mentioned, Roth’s cold, ruthless – and well-dressed – bounty hunter carries all the menace of an accountant on April 14.

As enjoyable as this all is, it takes away from the weight of the movie, which works a more serious angle later on.

And although the introduction to the characters is refreshingly slow (Wenders actually takes the time to let us get to know them), the hands-off approach to character development is undermined by the monologues that each of the main characters makes toward the end of the film.

Come Knocking

Nevertheless, the style, characters, photography, and energy are good enough to earn Don’t Come Knocking a recommendation. It may not be Wenders’ best film, nor even the best film this season, but it is good, and it’s essential viewing for fans of Wenders.