- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

“Don’t Come Knocking” is the latest in a series of small, understated movies about the late-life crises of disconnected men. Directed by Wim Wenders from a script by playwright Sam Shepard (who also stars), it’s an ornery sibling to the blooming genre of male-angst movies such as “Broken Flowers” and “Lost in Translation,” in which supposedly successful men must come to grips with the disappointments of their lives. But where those films pondered life’s uncertainties and found little in the way of hope, “Don’t Come Knocking” offers a vision of home and family as truly satisfying alternatives to the empty fantasies of mainstream success.

From the opening shot, in which Howard (Mr. Shepard) rides off triumphantly into a dusty desert plain, “Knocking” reveals its intention to strip away the glamour of Hollywood glory. For as triumphant as Howard seems, he’s actually escaping from the set of a big-budget Hollywood Western in which he’s supposed to be starring. His ride isn’t a signal of success; it’s an escape from it.

The rest of the movie continues to contrast the glitzy fakery of Hollywood with the grit and grime of the real world. Howard’s first move upon escaping is to trade his gaudy cowboy costume for the soiled threads of a man he meets living in a small desert shantytown. Later, Mr. Wenders juxtaposes overhead shots of those creaky shacks with similar shots of the fancy trailers and portable buildings on the movie set from which Howard has escaped. There’s a deep chasm, the film seems to suggest, between the haggard real world and the shiny, packaged myth proffered by Hollywood.

To its credit, the film doesn’t merely let Howard realize the folly of his fame-driven fantasies. It also suggests that home and family are the only truly satisfying substitutes.

Howard’s first stop is at his mother’s home. He hasn’t seen her in decades, and he has lived the tumultuous life of a spoiled bad-boy star. His mother, played with spirit and dry wit by Eva Marie Saint, accepts him anyway. Her love, not fame and fortune, is what keeps him grounded.

Throughout the picture, much reverence is reserved for mothers. They’re seen as founts of pluck and wisdom — the keepers of the world. Howard’s mother even has maintained his boyhood room for him. It’s one of the film’s great pleasures to watch Howard seem to transform into a little boy as he sits down by his childhood bed. As the steely studio agent Sutter (a prickly, precise Tim Roth) who has been sent to retrieve Howard, says, “Mothers are always the last refuge, aren’t they?”

As Howard’s wanderings continue, he discovers more old ties and family connections, and the cast members all give sparkling, resonant performances as the various players in Howard’s redemptive journey. They’re aided by Mr. Shepard’s lyrical, elusive script, which gives the actors the sort of elliptical dialogue more often seen onstage.

Mr. Wenders’ photography crackles with bright, burnt intensity, casting a feverish, dreamlike glaze over every frame. T. Bone Burnett’s ever-present music lends the proceedings a bluesy, moody sheen. For all the film’s focus on the harshness of reality, it often drifts into a sleepy surrealism of its own.

Not everything works. Sutter’s scenes come off disconnected, like afterthoughts, which is a shame because Mr. Roth is such peculiar fun. Mr. Shepard’s script never quite resolves itself, and a few of the scenes wind up in hammy territory better suited for the stage.

These are minor complaints, however. To find a thoughtful, funny movie that praises home and family over Hollywood success? That’s a door worth knocking on.

***

TITLE: “Don’t Come Knocking”

RATING: R, for language, sexuality

CREDITS: Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Sam Shepard

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.dontcomeknocking.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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