This Must Be The Place, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Sean Penn, is a film that delivers on cinematography, character dialogue and musical score but fails in cohesively bringing together the overall storyline. Although there are enough engaging moments to hold your attention for the entire duration of the film, you may just be left dissatisfied with the ending.
Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, a 50-something rock star living off his rock royalties in Dublin, with the temperament of a shy child. He seems to be suffering from Peter Pan syndrome. The theme of growing up and letting go permeates throughout. Although his musical career has been over for years, he continues to dress up as a Goth in day to day life. But this isn’t just Sean Penn in make-up, trespassing on Johnny Depp’s territory; as a character, Cheyenne really is believable, and his actions and motivations are fascinating to watch. His mostly quiet demeanour contrasts with his occasionally more explosive, volatile moments. The viewer will become increasingly comfortable with Cheyenne as the film progresses. For all the alleged morbid darkness of the lead character, this is a colourful film and Cheyenne is always surrounded by other bright and bizarre characters.
In the first part of the film we find out that he is happily married to Jane (Frances McDormand). The depressive lyrics of his old band drove two fans to suicide, and, despite his working marriage, he is racked with guilt. In one scene, wrapped in his duvet, he tells his wife, ‘I think I’m a tad depressed’. He is full of bottled rage which comes out apologetically, making for an overall comical performance from Penn.
It’s not easy to pin down the genre of this film, which is named after The Talking Heads’ song ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ from 1983. The leader of that band, David Byrne, contributes to most of the music in the film, as do a fictional band, brilliantly named The Pieces of Shit. With David Byrne at the helm and performing an extended set, this film can’t go far wrong. Throughout, the music combines with the scenery around it to create a hypnotic allure to Cheyenne’s world, reinforced by the subtleties of Penn’s acting.
The film is disjointed into two halves when Cheyenne’s everyday life that we see in Dublin is interrupted by news of his father dying. A difficult relationship is revealed as he hadn’t spoken to his father in 30 years. His father abruptly dies before he gets the chance to see him.
Cheyenne finds out that his father had spent the remainder of his life trying to track down a Nazi in America who persecuted him during the war. Deciding to take on his father’s task and find his tormentor, the film then turns from a comedy-drama into a road movie at an enjoyably lethargic pace. From then on, Cheyenne is not seen without his travelling suitcase on wheels. As he walks so slowly down one road, he gets overtaken by an elderly lady on a Zimmer frame.
Before setting off, Cheyenne consults a Jewish man (Judd Hirsch) who tracks down remaining Nazi war criminals. Hirsch’s character is concerned with Cheyenne’s lack of knowledge about the holocaust and takes him to see a lecture on the subject at a school. The flicker of monochrome slides of the holocaust juxtapose with the rest of the film’s colourful charm. Sorrentino takes a new approach of looking back at the holocaust through sedated eyes. It is only when he confronts the true madness of the holocaust that Cheyenne leave America and come home, having finally grown up.
In places the film is sublime and shot like a dream, as Sorrentino captures the open landscapes on the road. The film is studded with funny moments and random occurrences. I wasn’t sure if an overweight man dressed as Batman walks past Cheyenne at one point (without explanation), until the ending when Batman is duly credited.
The dreamlike nature of the film is also its drawback. Whilst the scenes seamlessly shift from one to the next, characters come and go too often, and Cheyenne remains the only constant one, although he proves to be very good company.
Once in interview, David Byrne said about his song: it’s ‘a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities. It’s a real honest kind of love song’. Sorrentino seems to have modelled his film on precisely the same premise: non sequiturs, strong emotional resonance, without much emphasis on narrative, and centred around an honest (yet spectacular) performance from Penn. For all its flaws, this is a triumph of art house cinema.