An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


The most important thing to know about “Don’t Come Knocking” is that two fine artists are painting on the same canvas at the same time.  The collaboration between Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders is predictably strange and interesting.   There is nothing ordinary about either of these men.    

                Don’t crowd them.  They share a love of open space, both physical and verbal – of sky and desert and dialogue.  The scenes Wenders has filmed in Butte, Montana are the abstractions of a Hopper painting.  The sharp planes of old buildings, have sat there for years catching every different light of day.   The streets are empty of horses, people, or vehicles.  Wenders creates a grandly stark landscape and invites Sam Shepard to unfold his drama right there.  Give mighty credit also to director of photography Franz Lustig whose camera whose camera and eye translate this grand emptiness to the screen.    

Because Sam Shepard is not a lighthearted writer, we expect and get the dreary relationships peppered with the verbal explosions that often overwhelm his withdrawn characters.   They surprise each other – and us.    

                Shepard plays Howard Spence a washed up cowboy star from the days when the Western was king.  As he and the genre aged, he slid into the clichéd addictions of alcohol, drugs and women.  Suddenly disgusted with his life and himself, he rides his horse off the latest set and turns his back on the mess his life has become.  He heads for Elko, Nevada, still home to his 80 year old mother (a marvelous Eva Marie Saint).  After being out of touch for thirty years, she casually drops the news that one of Howard’s girlfriends called a couple of decades ago to say he had fathered her child.    Howard heads for Butte (scene of his first big film) where he assumes café waitress Doreen (Jessica Lange) will lead him to the child of their dalliance.  He even dares hope for salvation.  Since this is a Shepard play, don’t look for sugar or sap in the wrap-up. 

Also returning to Butte, carrying her mother’s ashes in a large blue ceramic jug, is a young girl appropriately named Sky who wanders the empty streets in thoughtful silence while Howard has a thoroughly unpleasant reunion with his son Earl (Gabriel Mann).    

Those are the bones.  What about the flesh of this story?  This odd group inhabits vast empty physical and emotional space that simply overwhelms them.  With so much emptiness, what are the guideposts for a life?  Watch Wenders paint the canvas for Shepard:  an empty street with a couch thrown from a window by an angry son where a silent father simply sits there for a very long time.  Everyone in this film knows regret and loneliness.  Both Shepard and Wenders have the great good sense not to fill the stark open space they love with too many words or images.  We should expect that; after all, they also created the breathtaking “Paris, Texas.” 


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