Don't Come Knocking (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Wim Wenders's Don't Come Knocking is a kind of wallflower movie whose poetic vagueness you keep hoping will eventually blossom into meaning. It concerns the spiritual crisis of a sixty- something western actor, Howard Spence (Sam Shepard), who one day decides to ride his horse right out of the film he's working on and head for the hills - or, rather, for Elko, Nevada, where his 80-year-old mother (Eva Marie Saint) still lives. After a notorious life of booze, drugs and fast women, Howard thinks he'll hide out for a while, "like Jesse James", but on his first night out he manages to get himself arrested and dropped back home at Mom's next morning. Less Jesse James than naughty teenager.

This unwillingness to grow up and take responsibility assumes an ironic significance when his mother casually informs him that, 20 years ago, someone out there bore him a son. Such accidental fatherhood has become almost a trend in recent American pictures: first Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, then Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, went on the road in search of a son they never knew they had. So Howard, pricked by curiosity and remorse, travels on to Butte, Montana, where 25 years before he starred in a film that made him famous.

There he runs into an old flame Doreen, a waitress at the local diner. (She's played by Shepard's wife Jessica Lange, who played one of Murray's old girlfriends in Broken Flowers). Doreen has a 20-year-old son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who's none too pleased to meet his father after so long an absence.

Wenders and Shepard collaborated on the script, the first time they have done so since Paris, Texas in 1984. Clearly, ideas of homecoming and reconciliation are being aired again. But this time the partnership doesn't click, partly because the direction and dialogue are so flat and partly because Shepard is miscast as this "western bad boy" - he's too austere and withdrawn a presence to play a supposed hellraiser.

One doubts the wisdom of other casting decisions, notably Mann as the aggrieved son and Fairuza Balk as his deeply annoying girlfriend. Tim Roth tags along as the straight-arrow bondsman pursuing Howard, and Sarah Polley wanders about forlornly carrying an urn of ashes.

Could it be the remains of Wenders' career in there? This movie tries to piggyback Paris, Texas as surely as Faraway, So Close battened on the vastly superior Wings of Desire. Wenders once had pertinent things to say about the creative tension between America and Europe, but in the last decade and a half his art has dwindled into complacency and self-absorption. Don't come knocking is right: there's nobody home.