Luckily, I didn't know this before seeing the movie. I was completely taken in by the movie from the first shot, which is a view of clouds drifting by through a Monument Valley rock formation, looking like a pair of eyes. Something completely Magritte. This is followed by a change of exposure so you can see Sam Shephard riding through the Utah desert in fringed buckskins.
The 'plot' of the movie is rather schematic: an over the hill, out of control boozer movie star disappears from the set of the Western he's starring in. He visits his mother -- who he cut off thirty years prior --- in Elko Nevada. She tells him that he has a son in Butte, Montana, so he borrows her 50's vintage car and drives up there to ... well we're not sure what he wants to do and neither does he. Once he gets there, he finds the boy's mother in the diner she's worked in that whole time. He meets his son, who is angry at him, and a mysterious girl who glides around a completely depopulated Butte carrying her mother's ashes. At the same time, an obsessively fastidious british man who apparently works for the bonding company insuring the film he's walked out on is tracking him down.
But Wender's, echoing Werner Herzog's delirious, off-kilter "Stroszek," is making a movie here to warm the heart of any LitCrit major from the 70's -- a movie about the making of a movie, about the myth of the American West as portrayed in the movies, a movie about fame and familial alienation, and the end a movie about how myth can take hold of and use badly the poor mortals doomed to act it out. Sam Shephard's Howard is Odysseus to Jessica Lange's waitress Doreen as Penelope, and his son is a punk Telemachus.
Like "O Brother Where Art Thou" the music is huge, but Wenders isn't content to let it be entirely underscore. A song starts as Howard walks through the deserted streets of Butte, following Doreen to a dive bar. When he enters the bar, you see that his son Earl is singing and play the song there. Later Earl is playing a guitar through a Pignose amp in the middle of the street, The mysterious girl with the urn of ashes walks up and asks "where's Howard?" and Earl makes up a song around the question. As later they talk, there's some solo guitar playing in the underscore, but when the camera pulls back, it's actually Earl's girlfriend playing his guitar.
Visually, the movie is overwhelmingly beautiful. The camera makes circular track shots, whirling around a character to place them fully in their surroundings. Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig put huge energy into framing and lighting, and wring a hallucinatory beauty out of natural light and in-camera effects. As near as I can tell, everything in the movie was shot on location, setting up an interesting conflict between the allegorical, surreal events being photographed and the mundane, ashcan reality of the surroundings.
Shepard plays Howard as a man who is a complate stranger to himself and his own life. When he visits his mother (played by Eva Marie Saint), he leafs through the scrapbook of clippings she's kept, which documents his off-screen life of drugs, booze and women, and shakes his head. He denies everything to her, convincing neither of them. He gets a little drunk, and gets arrested for getting too violent with a video boxing game, taking a swing at a cop with the game's giant red boxing gloves. Lange's Doreen seems to be simultaneously devastated and amused by Howard's sudden reappearence. She almost begins to weep, and then starts laughing. She also echoes Howards Mother, with visual rhymes between the two characters -- Howard watches both drinking a beer, when they don't know he's there. The other principles all make strong impressions -- particularly Tim Roth's skip tracer, who seems unable to eat anything, regarding food with abstract fascination.
The fact that many critics thought it was a snooze is understandable, though. The story is skeletal, mannered and artificial, and apparently was intended that way, the better to make the raw soliloquies each character delivers in turn stand out. You don't react emotionally to the story of "Don't Come Knocking." What hooked me emotionally is the the real love affair in the movie, which is between the movie maker and movies. Maybe that's a bit too meta for some people, but for me, "Don't Come Knocking" positively roils with emotion and energy, celebrating the American West, the myth of the American West, the unique imaginary American West in the mind of a European raised on Hollywood Western, the myth of celebrity, and the myth of the prodigal father.