This Must Be the Place
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Umberto Contarello & Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring: Sean Penn (Cheyenne), Frances McDormand (Jane), Judd Hirsch (Mordecai Midler), Eve Hewson (Mary), Kerry Condon (Rachel), Harry Dean Stanton (Robert Plath), Joyce Van Patten (Dorothy Shore), David Byrne (Himself), Olwen Fouere (Mary's Mother), Shea Whigham (Ernie Ray), Liron Levo (Richard), Simon Delaney (Jeffery), Heinz Lieven, (Aloise Lange), Sam Keeley (Desmond), Gordon Michaels (Tattoo Mike).
Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place is inarguably one of the strangest films you will see this year. When the film begins, you would never guess that it would end up where it does – it just seems so far out there. And yet, somehow the film works. I disliked the film for the first half hour or so, but gradually, it won me over.
The movie opens in Ireland where Cheyenne (Sean Penn), a retired, Robert Smith-type 1980s glam rocker lives out his quiet retirement in a modern mansion, with his normal, firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand). He is bored, and spends his days hanging out with a sad young woman, Mary (Eve Hewson) hanging out at the mall, and cooking frozen pizza in his modern kitchen. On more than one occasion, people tell him he’s like an overgrown child – he was never forced to grow up, so he never did. He’s soft spoken and innocent – he even asks some of those seemingly simple, yet ultimately unanswerable questions children seem to specialize in.
Things change though when his father gets sick, and he has to travel back to America for the first time in decades – he doesn’t fly, so he has to take a boat, and he arrives too late, and his father is dead. He decided when he was 15 years old that his father – a Holocaust survivor – never loved him, and although he responded by not talking to his father, he never really got over it. When he finds out that his father spent his entire life trying to track down Aloise Lang – his tormenter at Auschwitz, and got so far as finding his American wife. Cheyenne decides to go on a cross country journey – in a pickup truck – to try and finish what his father started.
The early scenes in the movie bugged me. Watching Cheyenne live out his boring life in the lap of luxury, but still be unfulfilled, just didn’t interest me very much. Penn, buried underneath makeup and huge hair, and hiding behind his small, childlike voice, also grated on my nerves at first. These early scenes just didn’t really work for me when they were playing – yet they are crucial in retrospect. Without them, you won`t realize just how far Cheyenne comes during the course of the movie.
After his father dies, and the cross country journey begins however, This Must Be the Place really settles into a groove, and becomes an oddly compelling movie. The film reminded me of the strange, American cross country journeys by Wim Wenders – like his masterful Paris, Texas (which I think is why the film casts Harry Dean Stanton in a cameo role) or his underrated Don’t Come Knocking. While Wenders films were set in America, as a German filmmaker, they had a European feel to them – they looked at America in a way that American filmmakers simply do not. Italian filmmaker Sorrentino does the same thing here – but with a touch of strange, Lynchian surrealism thrown into the mix. The film doesn’t have the masterly control of Sorrentino’s last film – the brilliant Il Divo (not about the opera group) – but it is still a fascinating movie from beginning to end. It is a film about fathers and sons – and how you can never really escape that shadow, or never stop striving to make him proud. While Penn’s performance is strange, it is also effective as it moves along. By the end of the movie, I was surprised by how moved I was by his story – especially after how little I cared about it when the film began.