It helps to know that back in 1984 Wim Wenders (as director) and Sam Shepherd (as writer) collaborated in making Paris, Texas, arguably one of the best films ever made. And compared to Wings of Desire, Wenders’ masterpiece meditation on the haunted German memory, Don’t Come Knocking may feel, misleadingly, like a "small film." By a series of extraordinary flukes in developing Don’t Come Knocking, Wenders eventually ended up not only with a well-ripened script, but a dream cast as well. Sam Shepherd (who wrote the script) stars as the aging man-boy Howard Spence, a washed-up former Hollywood-western matinee star, who plays opposite Jessica Lange as Spence’s once and again love interest. Butte, Montana also stars, in a signature Wenders way, as the twilight of the western American Dream.
Wenders’ fascination with postwar American society is embodied in the mythic landscapes and films of the American West and many of his best film efforts are noir-western hybrids. Wenders remains haunted by certain Americanisms — the never-ending call of the open highway, the spontaneous-destined birth on the road of "families of necessity," the adolescence of American optimism and how it ages, the never-ending pursuit of broken dreams. These visions have informed many of his films from the start, beginning with his New German Cinema work during the 1970s.
For example, Kings of the Road follows a projection camera repairman, joined by a young man depressed over the recent break-up with his girlfriend, on a slow road trip across the back roads of Germany, going from funky, old movie house to movie house. In Alice in the Cities a German journalist en route back to Germany from the U.S. and unable to complete a project about America, finds himself saddled with a nine-year-old girl and is soon in search of her grandmother. Many of these themes dovetail with Sam Shepherd’s work. His portrayal of Howard Spence in Don’t Come Knocking carries a strong inner resonance with his role as Walter Faber in Volker Schlondorff’s 1991 film Voyager, based on the Max Frisch bestseller, Homo Faber.
At 60 Howard Spence is suddenly having a mid-life crisis. He walks off the set of what may well be his last film, to go see his mother (Eva Marie Saint), whom he has not seen in decades, in Elko, Nevada. He is slowly working out that he is really wanting to go to Butte, Montana to see Doreen (Jessica Lange), the woman he had had a fling with while making his first big western on location up there. In Butte he is confronted by a grown up son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who had forgotten he’d ever had a biological father and who now hates Howard for turning up. It turns out Howard also has a daughter, by anther woman; Sky (Sarah Polley) follows him everywhere, toting along her mother’s ashes in a searing blue urn.
Don’t Come Knocking is about traversing landscapes of memory. Even as the American Dream is fading in the open, once empty, surreal western landscapes now strewn with the detritus of an entirely disposable material society, so too the western-movie hero realizes he has trashed his own life and his own dreams. The detritus of his broken promises have piled up in the lives of former girlfriends, unclaimed children, abandoned parents. Howard Spence is like Butte and other has-been western towns, all standing ruins cluttered with old, used, broken, cast-offs of throw-away American culture.
Everywhere, natural lighting bleeds into the colors of the sets. Frequently, day passes languidly across twilight and into night. The jarring, brittle-bright, rag-picker colors of day give way to bright, burning twilight oranges and yellows. Artificial lights glow everywhere at night, contained or framed by rotting buildings. The saturated greens and garish maroon-reds of faces, clothing, backdrops suggest the colors of old, faded family photographs. All are perfect vehicles to induce meditation on the autumn of America.