This Must Be the Place – review
Sean Penn discovers his sense of humour as a retired goth rocker reconnecting with his past – but director Paolo Sorrentino’s road-movie takes a puzzling left-turn
Bizarre … Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.
The Guardian, Thu 5 Apr 2012 15.29 BST
Paolo Sorrentino’s first English-language feature is not quite a misstep, but is less successful than his other films. It is an intriguing co-production oddity, and one in which a disconnect opens up between style and substance; this attempt to absorb an imagined remnant of European history’s greatest horror into a quirky road movie in the manner of Wim Wenders does not entirely convince. There’s much less political and historical savvy than in Sorrentino’s earlier movie Il Divo, about Guilio Andreotti, and less of a solid base on which to rest his unmistakeable mannerisms: the emphatic low-angled establishing shots, the swooping perspectives and zooms, the deadpan closeups and shards of pop – although it’s sad, incidentally, to see him here bring out a cliched theme of Arvo Pärt.
What Sorrentino can boast, however, is an authentic star performance from Sean Penn, playing Cheyenne, a retired, tangly haired, mascara’d goth rocker who looks like Robert Smith’s depressed older brother or Quentin Crisp’s socially fastidious nephew. Penn is one of Hollywood’s biggest guns, and you cannot wheel him on without getting a very big bang, and so it proves again here. But he is well controlled and directed. Resembling an elegant black scarecrow, unselfconsciously towing a shopping trolley or wheelie-suitcase, his creation is like a bizarre installation lowered into weird landscapes: a Dublin shopping mall or a New Mexico desert. Penn shows us something we hadn’t seen much from him before – a sense of humour.
Cheyenne is living a weird, almost Stella Street existence in Dublin. Having quit the music business decades before, he now lives as a wealthy man in the Irish Republic, presumably for the tax advantages, sharing a luxurious mansion with his unpretentious wife Jane (Frances McDormand), a hardworking firefighter. With an elderly, Truman-Capoteish quavering voice, Cheyenne offers his wacky remarks. “Why is Lady Gaga….?” he wonders aloud, leaving the question to evaporate in the air. Cheyenne has little to do but brood over his share portfolio, go shopping in the local supermarket and hang out with his young friend Mary (Eve Hewson), whose love life he is gently trying to guide, and in whose unhappy family background he takes an interest. Together, they visit the graves of young people who were fans of his music. The key to his private pain is here.
All this is exotic and intricate enough. But then he receives word that his elderly father has died in New York, and on his return there, we find that Cheyenne is Jewish: his given name, from his pre-rockstar existence, is to remain a mystery. He is now tasked with tracking down the Auschwitz guard who tormented his father, and is still at large in the US. With the help of a querulous veteran Nazi hunter, played by Judd Hirsch, he sets out to do just this, in his spacey, laidback rockstar way – although how he locates the relevant clues, and why they have not been located before, is never really clear.
The best scene of the film, by a mile, is one in which Cheyenne meets his old friend David Byrne (playing himself, and performing the Talking Heads’ song This Must Be the Place). Their meeting has exactly the right off-the-wall eccentricity and charm, the exactly judged serio-comic taste. Byrne embodies a funky kind of snowy-haired wisdom; he’s a confessor figure to Cheyenne who reveals, in anguish, the reason for his current existence in Ireland, and for his unhappiness and guilt. It is very real.
Yet tracking down a wartime camp guard is such a hefty left turn for this story; it takes the movie to the edge, and over the edge, of logistical plausibility, and loads it with an importance that threatens to capsize the movie, while always insisting on a dimension of bleary, rock-star naivete. Of course, it could be that the very unassimilable bizarreness of the Nazi quest is part of the point: a distancing effect. Sorrentino gives us one of his most distinctive touches when Cheyenne is watching a rollerblader whooshing through a park in New York: lithe and super-cool – and then suddenly the guy loses his balance and crashes to the ground. The effect is startling, strange, almost hallucinatory, rather than just absurd or ironic. Sorrentino’s films take place in a world of strange things: the audience is jolted, startled, woken up, but woken up into a more intense, more lucid kind of dreaming.
The final moments in the American desert, and then in Dublin, have a strange savour: a kind of resolution that feels not forced exactly, but conjured and unreal. Sorrentino has left his Italian comfort zone for this film, and found an alternative comfort zone of rock music and road-movie tropes, a zone that he tries to give his own flavour and style. It can’t be the place where he flourishes the most.