Editor’s note: With This Must Be the Place now officially released in theaters, here is a re-run of our Cannes review, originally published on May 20, 2011.
Sean Penn‘s second appearance at this year’s fest – though in truth his first main once, since he was relegated to a side player in The Tree of Life – sees him don his finest goth garb and make-up to take an impressive shot at a Robert Smith type character. He plays Cheyenne, an aging former rock star, who seems happy to live off his royalties in a grand country house in Ireland with his wife (Frances McDormand), though really he is stagnating: depressed or bored, he can’t work out which. He gets an opportunity for respite when his father dies and he travels home to America for the funeral, subsequently learning that his father had been obsessed with tracking down a former Nazi Auschwitz guard who tormented him, and using the information he had already compiled to take on the task himself.
In essence Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place is a one-man road movie, and in traditional fashion it presents both a metaphorical and a physical journey through undiscovered or at least unfamiliar lands. And it all hangs on yet another stellar performance by Mr. Penn, who now must be getting close to being sick of the praise.
If the storyline seems somewhat off-kilter, that would be because it is. The dichotomy between the protagonist and his motivated quest is quite pronounced, and Sorrentino is clearly fascinated with the oxymoron of having someone who coasts through life charged with as serious a concern as Nazi hunting.
Cheyenne is initially presented as a sort of tragic but entirely loveable fool – Penn combines that Robert Smith mysticism, with the emotional immaturity he learned playing in I Am Sam and a broken-down fragility that very obviously echoes the image of Ozzy Osbourne shuffling around in his slippers on MTV. In many ways, Cheyenne and Ozzy have a lot in common, neither have grown up in a traditional sense, which at once provided the vehicle for their career successes but also now presents a problem for assimilation into normal society. Both too have that tragic otherness about them.
Having said that, Penn initially portrays Cheyenne as an impenetrably and triumphantly exotic character – he is an alien in eye liner and lipstick whose idiosyncrasies and odd quirks ostracize him from both his fellow characters (apart from the few who love him) and the audience, who are encouraged to laugh at the jarring effect of him undertaking mundane tasks like going to the supermarket. The tragedy for Cheyenne, and the basis for the incredibly engaging pathos that Penn brings to the role is that he is so tangibly other, that the sight of him in gym wear or investigating the progress of his stocks is instantly funny, and by the start of the second half, when he leaves Ireland and the tone of the film takes a swerve, he is suffering because of that clownish perception of him.
This is as much the story of Cheyenne’s search for himself as it is his quest to find his father’s tormentor, even though the character resists the suggestion when directly questioned by his wife. And regardless of that response, he is definitely searching for redemption and fulfillment, and for a way to confront and cast off the ghosts of his past. All of this is crucially under-pinned by Penn’s performance, which is both caricatured and effortlessly human, hyperbolic but nuanced. It is a performance as touched by oxymoron as the character himself: and the moments when Cheyenne comes out of himself, particular in rage or explosive grief are all the more affecting because of how convincing Penn is in establishing the more reserved, ethereal side of the character. Those humanist anchors make sure that Cheyenne never stumbles into pantomime territory, and while he is a larger than life character, he remains entirely believable and relatable.
Sorrentino has done exceptionally well to populate the rest of his cast with names as iconic as Penn – McDormand playing his wife, Harry Dean Stanton popping up briefly, and Judd Hirsch bringing his usual charismatic grumpiness along as a professional Nazi hunter who Cheyenne turns to for help. Alongside them is newcomer and Bono progeny Eve Hewson, as the rocker’s 16 year old best friend Mary, Irish actors Simon Delaney (in comically off-putting misogynist role) and Olwen Fouere (as Mary’s tragedy-worn mother), and the excellent Heinz Lieven, who do manfully to wrestle focus away from Penn, and add a welcome balance to things.
The soundtrack is gorgeous – and why wouldn’t it be, since the man in charge of the score is The Talking Heads‘ iconic lead-singer David Byrne, who does well to create an overall sound that is very different from the music we know him for, adding gentle comfort and warmth to the narrative with some unobtrusive backing tracks. And then of course he appears on stage in the film, singing “This Must Be The Place,” which is very impressive, though I have to admit that I felt that Byrne’s inclusion on-screen smacks a little of Sorrentino pulling together some of his heroes, after landing Penn when he didn’t think he could, and including Harry Dean Stanton in a largely unnecessary role. But then, if you can’t use your position of influence to take opportunities like working with Byrne, what the hell’s the point in becoming successful?
Overall the film is a surprisingly touching character piece, a portrait of a lost soul finding redemption, with heart and an abundance of humor thanks to a very clever script and the various intriguing conflicts it presents.
The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the resolution the film offers for Penn’s character. Rather than celebrate the fact that he has chosen to live in his own image for most of his life, ignoring the opinions and hurtful judgements of others, Sorrentino takes the opportunity at the end of the film to comment that Cheyenne could only ever grow if he cast off the illusion and self-delusion of his rock star character. It would have been sufficient for me for the film to have ended when he has his metaphorical “growing up” moment on-screen: that moment, oddly identified by him smoking – in direct response to an earlier accusation by another character that he never smoked because he was still a child – was subtle enough to convey the message, and I felt unease at having to accept the message that maturity and happiness requires acquiescence with normal cultures. And even worse, I felt the resolution in some way robbed the character of the oxymoronic impact he has up until that point.
The Upside: Penn is brilliant, as usual, and the story is just odd enough to capture the imagination as well as grounded enough in human interest to hold our attention.
The Downside: I can’t get over the feeling that Cheyenne’s resolution was a bad decision.