'Don't Come Knocking': Tedium on the Prairie

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

The first image in the Wim Wenders-Sam Shepard collaboration "Don't Come Knocking" is majestic and inspirational: a lone dark rider on a lone dark horse, stirring dust and memories as he hurtles along under a ten-gallon hat and a blue sky as big as the Montana it encompasses.

The second image, however, diminishes all hope: a guy on a Segway.

Good lord, I thought: Could this be the first Segway western?

If only.

No, instead "Don't Come Knocking" is a loose agglomeration of bits and pieces, some much better than others, on the whole unconvincing and tedious.

Everything it does well (horses, scenery, movies, old people), it loses interest in; everything it does poorly (families, men and women, kids), it obsesses on.

It basically documents a crisis in the life of cowboy star Howard Spence. And you say: There are no cowboy stars anymore. There really haven't been since Clint Eastwood stopped making westerns.

For some bizarre reason, the movie does not know this. It seems not to have noticed that the western as a staple commercial genre has vanished. So it posits Shepard himself, lanky and crooked-toothed, as a fancy-shirt-wearing, silver-spurred, gaudy-booted older fellow fleeing on horseback across the desert. (With that outfit, he looks more like he's on the run from the Village People.) It quickly develops that he's fled his professional obligations by simply running away on horseback from a big shoot decamped in the desert. He's had enough. He can't take it anymore. "Electric Horseman," anybody?

The guy on the Segway turns out not to be a major character, though by setting up the horse-Segway contrast, Wenders stupidly makes you think so. Segway-boy is merely an assistant director; he's the one who discovers the missing actor and reports to the movie's crew, notably great old George Kennedy as a sort of old-pro director he himself might have encountered back on the set of the Burt Kennedy or Andrew V. McLaglen oaters he played heavies in as a younger man.

But "Don't Come Knocking" isn't really interested in westerns, or the good old days or anything like that. The great George Kennedy, who also stirs dust and memory, vanishes in two minutes, never to be seen again. The point of the movie set and the flown-coop scenario is to set up a mild chase mechanism in which Completion Bond Co. representative Tim Roth pursues Howard Spence as relentlessly as Randy Scott pursued Lee Marvin in "Seven Men From Now." Roth is very funny, easily the best thing in the picture, because he is absolutely humorless.

The second-best thing in the picture is Eva Marie Saint as Howard's mother, to whose house in Reno Howard flees. Again, this is very interesting: She's old-school, disapproves of her profligate, ne'er-do-well offspring whose shenanigans have lit up the tabloid headlines for years (she has a scrapbook). More important, the two of them have a wonderful comic timing, and when the humorless Roth arrives to close in on his quarry, the picture seems to be setting up as one of those dry comedies of American misbehavior and folly -- and redemption -- that, say, Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt") is so good at.

But no; it takes another strange and unlikely twist. As a result, he heads (no more Eva Marie Saint) to Montana.

There he finds Jessica Lange -- famously affiliated with Shepard in real life -- the most beautiful diner waitress in Butte, as well as the United States, the world and the universe, and her son, Gabriel Mann, a seasoned pro at a young age.

But at this point, "Don't Come Knocking" loses steam and charisma. It degenerates into one of those scream-o-ramas, an emotional hellzapoppin', where everybody tries to make everybody else cry. It's tantrum city. At one point, the boy throws furniture out the window for what feels like 10 minutes; then Roth sits in the furniture in the middle of the street for what feels like 20.

Wenders and Shepard worked together many years back in "Paris, Texas," the bleak Euro-art film delivered in a Texas twang. I recall loving it, but I wouldn't watch it again if you paid me lots of money. With its brilliant cast, its creative pedigree, "Don't Come Knocking" seemed as close to a sure thing as possible, but it only proves the sad truth that there's no such thing as a sure thing.

Don't Come Knocking (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for emotional intensity, brief nudity and profanity.

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