mon 16/09/2019

This Must Be The Place | reviews, news & interviews

This Must Be The Place

This Must Be The Place

Paolo Sorrentino's English-language debut is a beguilingly strange venture

An unlikely avenging angel, Cheyenne (Sean Penn)

“There’s something wrong here. I don’t know exactly what it is, but something.” It’s no coincidence that this line bookends Paolo Sorrentino’s much-anticipated English language debut – it's a beguilingly strange, distancing, even discombobulating venture, at times gently lyrical, at others nightmarish. While there is indeed something about it that feels wrong, a more accurate turn of phrase might be that there’s something missing here. In brief, this is a film about a son avenging his father in which no father-son relationship exists.

This is far from unintentional, and Sorrentino has discussed in interviews his interest in this very absence. After arriving too late to his estranged father’s deathbed in New York, retired rock star Cheyenne (Sean Penn) sets out to find the ex-Nazi officer who tormented his father in Auschwitz. Having upped sticks to Dublin some 30 years prior, his view of America – and Americana – as he travels through its diners and highways is that of an outsider, less the prodigal son than the newborn.

Cheyenne (Sean Penn)It’s difficult to conceive of a less likely avenging angel than Penn’s singular Cheyenne, at once ennui-stricken and acutely childlike. The Cure’s Robert Smith is the overt model for his dramatically Gothic look, but his quavery diction recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, and there’s something of Edward Scissorhands in his look and his worldview. Even without blades for fingers, he lives in a somewhat self-imposed state of social exile, and the scene in which he explains the painful reason behind his retirement makes it easy to understand why. It’s too striking and emotionally satisfying a moment to spoil, but Penn plays it with poignant nuance and none of the histrionic shouting he’s at times been known for.

Sorrentino’s focus seems to wander as freely as his protagonist’s once the film gets out on the open road, making for a journey narrative that’s more a series of encounters than an arc in the strictest sense. But the combination of wide, looming visuals – in which actors are consistently dwarfed against their backdrop, be it a desert or Cheyenne’s coldly palatial Dublin home – and David Byrne’s spectacular music makes it impossible not to go along for the ride.

For all its tangential whimsy, though, there is an underlying sense here of the uncanny. Two heightened persecutory moments in particular – one in a supermarket, another in a cockpit – feel like portions of an extended nightmare, one in which the dreamer knows only that something terrible is imminent. Given the end goal of this journey, the dread is more than justified.

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) with wife Jane (Frances McDormand)In place of a dynamic with his father, Sorrentino’s first act establishes Cheyenne’s warm relationship with his wife (Frances McDormand) and his more enigmatic bond with Mary (Eve Hewson), a troubled young woman giving him a run for his money in the gothic get-up stakes. While this portion of the film feels ill-connected to the later odyssey, and there’s arguably too much time spent on these relationships given how irrelevant they become once Cheyenne’s across the pond, the scenes are so well-played, and so effectively employed to develop a frequently inscrutable character, that you forgive the disconnect.

Setting aside Sorrentino’s remarkable visuals and singular take on the revenge story, setting aside Byrne’s arresting music, it’s Penn’s shrewd portrayal of a tricky character that anchors This Must Be The Place through all its wilful strangeness. After his disappointingly aimless turn in The Tree of Life (and subsequent admission that he had little idea what he was doing in the film) he knows exactly what he’s doing with Cheyenne, creating a character who is both lovable and remote, both playful and pained, both perpetual child and world-weary recluse. It's a compelling triumph for director and actor both. 

Watch the trailer for This Must Be The Place:

Cheyenne's view of America – and Americana – is that of an outsider, less the prodigal son than the newborn

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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