The director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard first collaborated on Paris Texas (1984), and their latest film Don't Come Knocking (2006) is yet another version of one of the oldest stories in the book: the return of a wandering father. Shepard plays Howard Spence, the last of the cowboys – or at least, an ageing film star with a Westerner image and a long record of well-publicised bad behaviour.
At the outset, Don't Come Knocking looks and sounds like a Western in its own right: guitar strings twang as Howard makes a break from the desert location where he's shooting his current movie and rides his horse into the wild blue yonder, clad in full cowboy regalia. While the film crew he's left behind desperately try to discover his whereabouts, Howard acquires a car and heads for Nevada; here he makes contact with his level-headed mother (Eve Marie Saint) who joyfully takes him in and treats him as the child he essentially remains.
Shepard's lanky Gary Cooper silhouette and abashed grin give the keynote of his character, a man who's always been content to evade responsibility and reside within his myth. Despite his legendary aura, when it comes to personal relationships he's regularly on the back foot – particularly with his ex-lover Doreen (Jessica Lange) whom he met decades earlier while shooting a film in Butte, Montana.
Like King Arthur returning from his cave, Howard makes his way to Butte, where he finds Doreen still working in the same diner – but while she regards him with goodwill, she has no plans for a reconciliation. His real challenge is to win over their son Earl (Gabriel Mann), a petulant crooner in a local bar who reacts to his father's arrival by throwing infantile tantrums. It's unclear whether either Mann or Wenders fully recognise the absurdity of this character, though Earl's endearingly trashy girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk) is a more fully-fledged comic figure with a similar lack of impulse control.
Meanwhile, another of Howard's unacknowledged children has shown up in town, a young woman (Sarah Polley) who clutches her mother's ashes in a light-blue urn and haunts her father like a damaged angel. Also on his way to Butte is Sutter, a buttoned-down insurance company representative (Tim Roth, very funny for once) who's determined that the abandoned film be completed.
These varyingly eccentric types barely seem to belong in the same universe, and the film makes no pretence at realism. In this day and age, how probable is it that Howard could maintain his fame by specialising in Westerns? But Shepard's quizzically romantic attitudes and Wenders' ability to tell an intimate story on a grand scale combine to make this a wayward but extremely lovable film, filled with whimsical jokes, psychological surprises, and boldly composed images that give a sense of mastery over wide stretches of earth and sky.
After Howard arrives in Butte, time passes slowly and the viewer starts to feel like a local – familiar with the worn nineteenth-century shopfronts, able to imagine how the streets might fit together and where people would be found at different hours of the day. Having begun at one camp site, the movie centres its final act around another: after Earl tosses his furniture from a first-floor window in a typical burst of rage, Howard positions himself overnight on a tacky couch out the front of the hotel, where Wenders films their climactic encounter like a gunfight at high noon.
Though the title tells us that Howard belongs nowhere except for the sealed world of the film set, the optimistic ending suggests that his children have gained by accepting their real, flawed father in place of his silver-screen double. Still, a darker side to the story prefigures the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men (2007), which shares Don't Come Knocking's Western setting and mythic concerns. In the Coens' film, a parodic returning king (Javier Bardem) brings only death in his wake – and even a pregnant young woman (Kelly McDonald) has no chance of renewing the barren land.
Here, while Howard ambivalently longs for home and family, his opposite number Sutter remains shut off from personal ties and what he views as the continuing hell of the modern world. "Nothing's changed," he tells Howard, just before he pulls into a petrol station adorned with a dozen pumps sporting the Exxon logo. It's a grimly poetic image that belies his words, returning us to a corporatised America that has little place for solitary, roaming men.