We’ve all done it—killed an afternoon drinking in a pleasantly grungy roadhouse somewhere, boozily enjoying the illusion of having fallen off the grid, playing semi-forgotten blues songs on an outdated jukebox and saying to oneself, see, I should capture this feeling, this should be a movie. Sobered up, we don’t make that movie, but Wim Wenders does. Having begun as the most austerely hip of the German New Wavers, Wenders quickly became besotted with American cliché culture, from trench-coat noir and road-movie outlawry to rockabilly and post-western macho-ness, all of it commonly orchestrated with a whiskeyhead’s dreary notion of cool and lousy sense of direction. In the last quarter-century, he blazed with propulsive originality twice—in 1984’s Paris, Texas, which played to all of Wenders’s touristy weaknesses and still emerged as a cohesive miracle, and Wings of Desire (1987), a sui generis, all-German masterpiece he has tried and failed to regenerate since. But otherwise, Wenders has been lost in his funhouse, and a crash festival of Faraway, So Close!, The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel, Land of Plenty, and the new Don’t Come Knocking would cure even Tom Waits of barroom whimsy for life.
Given such a run, you might suggest a return to the wellspring of his better films, script-wise, and that is what Wenders has done: Don’t Come Knocking was written by Sam Shepard, but unlike Paris, Texas the project meanders through predictable and emotionally undemanding territory, with Shepard himself grumping up center stage as a menopausal jerk searching for meaning we’re never sure is there. Shepard’s hero, a leathery cowboy actor named Howard Spence, defects from a desert movie set (shooting what looks like an anachronistic Fordian oater) and his blind-driving lifestyle of booze, dope, and fan-boffing. With a bond company agent (Tim Roth) on his tail, the uncommunicative and vaguely motivated Spence heads to his mother’s house in Nevada, where despite the warm, practical presence of Eva Marie Saint he finds no solace—feel the momentum!—but does discover, as if you didn’t see it coming, that a waitress he knocked up more than two decades earlier had a son he’s never met. It’s Broken Flowers with bourbon and ten-gallons and meta-country soundtrack warbles.
So, on to Butte (in a vintage Olds, no less), where the strangely stiff-faced barmaid (Jessica Lange) gives him a hard time, his new-wave-Elvis-ish, Chris Isaak–toned club singer son (Gabriel Mann) spits in his eye, and a nurturing young woman (Sarah Polley) who carries an urn of her mother’s ashes everywhere (she talks to it, like Warren Oates growling at Alfredo Garcia’s severed head) suggests that she’s his kid too. We’ve got an hour or so left, as Spence pleads with virtually everyone to give him some kind of chance, before he more or less surrenders to inertia in the movie’s most stirring sequence: On an abandoned couch on a dead-end street, Spence sits still for what passes for 24 hours, as the low-rent neighborhood around him flits by, dogs keep him company, and Wenders’s camera indulges in a slow series of circular pans.
That’s it for early-Shepardian set pieces. What all this has to do with moviemaking, stardom, substance abuse, paternity, middle age, Montana, or America, I could not say. Wenders clearly doesn’t think in those terms; he longs to make narrative choices the way a jazz guitarist chooses licks, capriciously, hunting for grooviness. But the attempt imbues his movies with the personality of a hungover Beat poet playing dress-up.