When big-shot Hollywood actor Howard Spence is on location somewhere, he puts up a sign on his trailer that says: “Don’t come knocking if the trailer’s rocking.” But the “Don’t come knocking” part applies generally. Howard wants to be left alone. How can he repress his feelings and self-medicate if people are always bugging him?
Howard is played in “Don’t Come Knocking” by Sam Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay from an idea he conceived with Wim Wenders, who directed. Howard Spence doesn’t represent any particular modern-day actor — he’s famous for making Westerns, which doesn’t describe anyone currently working — but he does embody the type of spoiled Hollywood millionaire we read about in the tabs. Booze, drugs and loose women are his idea of a good time, and he erratic behavior is well-known among those who work with him.
He’s shooting a Western in the hills of Utah when he finally decides he’s had enough and, like one of his characters, rides off toward the horizon. Once he’s miles from the set, leaving the cast and crew baffled as to his whereabouts, he trades his horse and cowboy costume for other clothes and hops on a bus bound for Elko, Nev.
Howard grew up in Elko, and his mother (Eva Marie Saint) still lives there. They haven’t spoken in nearly 30 years, though, not since Howard became rich and famous. She barely recognizes him when he arrives, but she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge at having been neglected all these years. She’s still his mom, after all, complete with milk and cookies.
Meanwhile, back on the movie set, the studio enlists a nattily dressed, no-nonsense investigator named Sutter (Tim Roth) to find Howard and drag him back to work. Also meanwhile, we meet a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley), who is traveling the West with an urn containing the ashes of her recently departed mother. She figures into the story a bit later.
Howard winds up in Butte, Mont., where he shot a movie 20 years earlier and had a happy affair with a local woman named Doreen (Jessica Lange), whose son Earl (Gabriel Mann) is the product of that liaison. Howard has rarely been happy since Butte, and he seems to hope that returning to the scene will spark something in him now.
Shepard’s screenplay and his performance both suggest a character who is wistful but not melancholy. From the very beginning, the film is sunny (literally and figuratively), and set in beautiful, wide-open Old West locales like Elko and Butte. Howard is unhappy with life, but the movie isn’t sad. It’s upbeat and optimistic, actually, buoyed by warm performances by Shepard, Saint and Lange. This is lightweight drama, sure, but it’s a charming example of it.
B (1 hr., 48 min.; )