This Must Be the Place

April 7, 2012
Screen shot 2012-05-01 at 11.52.56 PM

Sean Penn has had more dynamic roles, but he can hardly have played a weirder character than Cheyenne, a living relic of the post-punk era, complete with porcupine hairdo, lipstick, and the kind of eyeshadow usually found on Egyptian tomb paintings. Think of Robert Smith from the Cure. When Cheyenne talks, he enunciates every word slowly and carefully in a squeaky voice, making a huge effort to get through a sentence. When he moves, it is a struggle between forward motion and inertia, as if walking a tightrope.

Nevertheless, Penn gives a bravura performance, injecting charm into a gormless figure who looks like he has been permanently debrained by decades of substance abuse. As the film progresses, this neurotic, bored, bombed-out persona begins to resemble a protective mask that keeps reality at bay.

This Must Be the Place is the kind of film that lingers in the mind, and it may well prove to be one of the finds of the year. Although the story is a comedy of sorts, it has a dark undercurrent. It is both a road movie and a poignant drama with much to say about human relationships and anxieties. The music is by David Byrne, who also appears in a cameo in which he performs the title song, a classic Talking Heads number.

The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a Bildungsroman. We often translate this as a “coming-of-age story” but here we are dealing with a character whose development has been permanently arrested in his late teens. Cocooned from the real world by the money he earned from his early hit records, Cheyenne has been able to remain frozen in time. Only in his ffties does he finally have an incentive to act his age.

When we meet Cheyenne he is living in his mansion in tax-friendly Dublin, with Jane (Frances McDormand) his wife of many years. Although he has an image that would frighten people in the streets, he is a terminally mild character afflicted with a depression that has become a fixed part of his personality. He wanders around the supermarket pushing a trolley, and plays Jai alai with Jane in an empty concrete swimming pool. It is a long time since he has written or recorded a song.

Cheyenne has never gotten over the fact that two teenage boys committed suicide after listening to his gloomy records. His self-imposed inertia is a way of making amends.

When he learns that his father is near death he has to return to his New York, Jewish roots. Being frightened to fly he travels by boat and finds his father dead by the time he arrives. In a way he can’t explain, Cheyenne is impelled to take on the old man’s obsession: tracking down the guard who humiliated him in a concentration camp. After a conversation with Nazi hunter, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), he sets off to scour the United States in search of his father’s elderly tormentor.

As in all road movies, events take on a fairy tale quality. Each character Cheyenne meets seems to add another piece to the puzzle. In trying to complete his father’s unfinished quest, he is seeking to heal the rift between himself and the dead patriarch. In his search for the camp guard he aims to solve the mystery of his own empty, fractured existence. The analysis may sound obvious, but the story itself is never predictable.

This quirky, original film has been directed and co-scripted by Paolo Sorrentino, who is virtually unknown in the English-speaking movie world. He deserves to be known if only for his way of looking at the Holocaust through the lens of small-town USA, which is probably unique in cinema.

Like his French counterpart, Michel Hazanavicius, who gave us The Artist, on the strength of this feature one may expect to hear a lot more from Sorrentino. Both directors examine America from an outsider’s perspective, proving more insightful than so much homegrown product.

“Product”, I’m afraid, is the only way to describe most of the box office spectaculars lurching out of Hollywood nowadays. The success of the new Sherlock Holmes films, the rehashed sci fi clichés of The Hunger Games, and endless fantasy flicks in 3D, testify to the growing cynicism of producers and a corresponding consumer preference for action-packed, lowbrow schlock. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, B movies were cheap, exciting and occasionally brilliant. Today, C grade scripts and leaden plots are attached to movies that cost $100 milion to make.

We may expect to find good actors such as Sean Penn gravitating towards more interesting projects, and many of those projects appear to be coming out of Europe. This Must Be the Place feels like a strange, magical one-off, but it would be nice to think it represents the shape of films to come.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 07, 2012

This Must Be the Place, Italy/France/Ireland, Rated M, 118 minutes