The Irredeemable World
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Don’t Come Knocking
dir. Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard’s 1984 film Paris, Texas runs 147 long minutes. The central performance, by Harry Dean Stanton, is quite breathtaking in its solipsism, and the movie includes many of Wenders’ signature shots of the harsh environment of the American West with which he fell in love. Like any film by Mr. Wenders, you have to wait a good hour to decide exactly how much up its own ass this production will end up being. His collaboration with Sam Shepard, then, seemed so unlikely precisely because the playwright got through to what actual people wanted and desired so much more organically than Wenders ever did.
If you could not tell, I was never the biggest fan of Paris, Texas, although it is a gorgeous and moving film. Wenders and Shepard finally reunited to atone for the sins of the past with 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking, which is substantially better in every way. Let me tell you why.
First of all, there is the matter of Sam Shepard’s performance as the titular character, a vain and stupid actor named Howard Spence. Besides Harold Pinter, there probably has never been a playwright who was as good on film as Shepard, who is now no longer with us. Shepard was a genius for the stage; I mean he just knew exactly how everything should be played, but the amazing thing is he never wrote this in his scripts. His plays are all meant for the actors to do as they will, which is funny because he knew better than anyone how many bad actors there were after decades in the theater.
Buried Child was probably Shepard’s best ever play, but 1980’s True West was his broadest story and will probably end up his most well-known effort. The only Shepard play I ever saw live was Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching the main roles of True West, which kind of never made sense to me, even though they were both very good at it. The idea was it kept the concept of the two brothers fresh, and the actors enjoyed it. When I went to see True West at the Circle on the Square, Bruce Willis was sitting across from me. He was doing a filmed version of True West on Showtime, maybe the worst version ever done of the play. He was horrified by what he was seeing, probably because he knew the role did not suit him.
The best part of True West and every Shepard play is the language. He knew exactly how people talked, and his characters did not talk the same. This was not David Mamet where it turned into this weird omnipoetic thing or Suzan Lori-Parks where the language overwhelmed everything and became more like a chorus. This was people and how the main fact of their speech patterns indicated their desires, ambitions, and flaws.
In Don’t Come Knocking, he takes on this very slight, often drunken man who walks off the set of a Western he is filming in Utah. The first thing Howard Spence does after he escapes is go visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint). That’s one of the things I enjoy most about Don’t Come Knocking. His mother picks him up at the bus station, she has a couple scenes with him after that, and then he just goes on his way.
Howard heads to the place he passed through while he was working on another film. While he was there, he impregnated a waitress named Doreen (Jessica Lange) who he kind of had a thing for. He wants to get back to that, even though twenty years have passed. In Don’t Come Knocking, she never takes him back, because this is not a Hollywood movie, thank God, it is a Sam Shepard play only with better sets, if not actors.
In that town of Butte is a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley). She recently lost her mother, and carries the woman’s ashes around in an urn. It was clear then that Polley was a dynamic talent, and her mere presence in Don’t Come Knocking is completely overwhelming. Shepard has this great scene where he meets her and at first he thinks she’s a fan, and even after she convinces him that she is not one, he still warms to her slowly. When you’ve been hurt the thing you learn is how dumb it is to trust someone in those first five minutes.
Sutter (Tim Roth) is an insurance man sent to bring Howard Spence back to the set by any means necessary. When he finally finds Howard, he handcuffs them together. This is such a Shepard thing, and it is a great onstage conceit in general. Roth has always been terrific when it comes to bringing a basic humanism to every kind of role, even that of the traditional antagonist. But as in many Shepard plays, the true antagonist is far more difficult to discern.
Shepard and Jessica Lange, his one-time wife, have this supercharged scene that takes place as they are walking through the main drag of the town. In this sequence, Wenders works considerable magic with windows and reflections, and the dialogue is so completely right for how people who know each other a little, but not a lot, make sense out of the conflict intrinsic to their lives.
Howard Spence knows that he has a son named Earl (Gabriel Mann) this entire time, and he goes to see him. Earl responds by throwing all of his belongings out of his window onto the street and breaking up with his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk). She sticks around anyway, sensing that this difficult moment is not really about her.
Polley is phenomenal in her scenes with Shepard, but she interacts with her potential stepbrother even better. in both circumstances she glows with a vital radiance all the other participants in Don’t Come Knocking are so keen to recapture. We never do find out if Sky is actually Howard Spence’s daughter, and it is implied that she is probably not. But that actually only improves thing for Howard, because he finds it easier to love someone he never was told he had to be responsible for than his actual son. In typical fashion for this great American author, one form of love ends up being a bridge, the only true path, to the other.
In every narrative, the idea is that by the end something has to change. Shepard gave this rule of stage a clever and brutal twist. He conceived of the idea that people could try to evolve, but nothing could actually change them – not dialogue, not action, not violence, not death – they could only react to it imperceptibly like putting on a winter coat to repel a cool breeze. Things were altered, but not necessarily what was needed.
The most redemption Howard Spence receives is a soft hug. This is not only enough for him, it is beyond his wildest expectations. Years and years of loneliness change what gives us pleasure. The merest thought of those we truly care for, not even the return of the affection, can provide solace. It is enough to see and be around those we love.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.