Sam Shepard, with his snaggle-toothed rawhide glamour, is just about the only actor of his generation who can still wear a cowboy hat that looks as though it utterly belongs on his grizzled head. In Don’t Come Knocking, which he wrote and stars in, and which Wim Wenders directed with his usual flaky but open-eyed here-and-there ramble, Shepard plays an aging Hollywood bad boy who was once a big Western star. His glory days are 25 years behind him, which vagues out the film’s cultural time frame a bit; after all, it’s not as if they were making vintage horse operas in the mid-’70s. Nevertheless, Shepard’s charisma has always reached back to an earlier time, so it’s easy to accept him as a kind of pre-counterculture hero — Eastwood without the sneer — who aged into the era of tabloid scandal.
When we first meet him, he’s riding a horse through the rocky plains of Utah, but what looks like a joyful gallop is really an escape: Shepard’s character, Howard Spence, has ditched a movie set, leaving the production he’s starring in high and dry. A quick glimpse into his trailer — liquor bottles, smears of cocaine, slinky groupies — tells us most of what we need to know about Howard’s lifestyle. A little later, he flips through a scrapbook of infamy: affairs, fights, drug and alcohol busts splashed over years of headlines. Don’t Come Knocking is a tale of redemption, and much of it passes by in that wandering Wenders haze, but what gives it a vital, touching dimension is that Shepard, as actor and writer, depicts Howard’s burnout from a hard-bitten inside knowledge of celebrity’s privileges and traps. Howard is a man so used to not giving that he’s dried himself up. He learns, early on, that he has a son he never knew about, the product of a love affair with a waitress (Jessica Lange) that took place when he was making a film in Butte, Mont., decades before. He arrives in Butte with a half-hearted inclination to connect with his past, and maybe with himself. Don’t Come Knocking bears a surface resemblance to Broken Flowers, but this movie is soaked in regret. Howard, by looking into the eyes of his son (Gabriel Mann), who has no particular interest in his deadbeat famous father, touches something essential: the life he should have led but couldn’t.