In Don’t Come Knocking (2005), director Wim Wenders and screenwriter/star Sam Shepard attempt to explore the impact that the legacy of the Western has had on the American West.
The film stars Shepard as a washed-up movie star Marlboro Man named Howard Spence whose life of drugs, drink, and dames has spiraled out of control. He flees the set of his latest movie (aptly titled The Phantom of the West) on horseback, taking refuge with his mother (Eva Marie Saint), who he hasn’t seen in thirty years, in Elko, Nevada.
She tells him of a phone call she received some twenty years ago from a woman claiming to be pregnant with his son. Howard sets off to look for her in Butte, Montana, where twenty-five years ago he made his name in the movies. Meanwhile, another silent, solitary man named Sutter (Tim Roth), dispatched by the insurance company that bonded The Phantom of the West, is hot on Howard’s heels.
The film’s interior scenes unfold almost exclusively in Western-type locales: the bar, the train station, the casino, and the flophouse. These are cut next to cinematographer Franz Lustig’s John Ford-style sweeping vista exteriors. The mise en scène is cluttered with mirrors and the camera has a rather pronounced tendency to circle around Howard and quickly rush in for close-ups of his wrinkled, weathered face.
Whether or not the mirrors suggest the gulf between the real American West and the Western dream of the movies, and whether or not the camera’s constant worrying of Howard represents his ambush by old age or revelation, many of Don’t Come Knocking‘s devices veer uncomfortably close to cliché.
This is symptomatic of the film’s root problem: Wenders is incapable of separating the Western from the West. He’s imbued the film with a sense of artificiality that can be charming and engaging, but precludes the sort of insight that the film’s more solemn moments suggest it offers. Don’t Come Knocking will resonate most with those who second the sentiments of Howard’s old flame Doreen (Jessica Lange): “I think I like the movies better. Than real life.”