Wim Wenders can drive me nuts. He’ll make a movie that seems bound for genius and then shoot it down with a few fatuous, pretentious scenes. In Don’t Come Knocking, which he wrote with Sam Shepard, that moment comes when Sarah Polley, forever æthereal, starts talking to an urn. Until then the bad Wenders hadn’t come knocking yet, and the film looked as if it might equal Der amerikanischer Freund|The American Friend (1977) and Alice in den Städten|Alice in the Cities (1974).
Or The State of Things (1982) and the Sam Shepard–scripted Paris, Texas (1984), two films that this one combines, along with ingredients from many others. Howard Spence (Shepard) has seen better days — what cowboy actor hasn’t? That his career has lasted as long as it has, given the laughably cornball Western he’s working on, stretches credibility and suggests that Wenders and Shepard might be a little out of touch with American pop culture. One morning, Howard jumps on his horse and heads out of Dodge. Switching clothes with an old codger in a ghost town (Wenders’s eye for the absurd detail evident in the collapsed shacks contrasted with a spanking new bank of mailboxes), he hires a rental car, dumps it, tosses his credit cards, and hops a bus to Nevada to reunite with his mom (Eva Marie Saint) after a 30-year separation.
Saint seems like North by Northwest’s Eve Kendall five decades later: enigmatic, blunt, bemused, and practical, she doesn’t ask many questions or get upset, she just makes her boy breakfast when the sheriff brings him home after a bad night in the local casino. (No one has captured the kaleidoscopic void of such an environment as well as cameraman Franz Lustig.) She coolly lies to Sutter (Tim Roth, icily precise and weird in a minor role), the bondsman sent to drag him Howard back to the set. She also tells Howard a secret: he’s a father, from a fling or two he had while shooting a film 20 or so years ago in Butte, Montana.
I don’t think the similarity to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is accidental; Wenders donated film stock for Jarmusch’s first film, Permanent Vacation (1980), they’ve been sort of soul mates since, and there’s a scene later in this film that seems a steal from, or perhaps a homage to, Down by Law (1986). But here it turns out to be one of those moments that sabotages all the magical evocation of place and sketching of character that’ve been building. After an aborted meeting with his father, Earl (Gabriel Mann as Anakin Skywalker), Howard’s son by saloon girl Doreen (an out-of-control Jessica Lange), goes home and tosses the contents of his room into the street. Then Dad returns for a prolonged and phony dramatic confrontation with his boy. And just when you think the movie will suck for good, Howard plops on a sofa and watches the world pass by: the shifting light, a blowing box, an ice-cream truck, a big car with a mirrored exterior. I felt like I knew Butte, Montana, maybe even Howard a little bit. But what’s the deal with Wenders? My advice: more mirrored cars and fewer monologues to urns.