Not being familiar with any of Paolo Sorrentino’s previous productions, I went into this one blind. My only knowledge of the film prior to viewing was that Sean Penn plays the lead role as a comical retired rocker named Cheyenne. And, to be honest, that fact alone should be enough to entice anybody. Cheyenne’s huge Robert-Smith-inspired hair, black clothing and make-up combined with a hunched gait and whisper-y quavering voice makes this one of the most humorous parts that Sean Penn has ever played. The opening scenes of the film suggest that Cheyenne feels unfulfilled despite his happy marriage with Jane (Frances McDormand); he lives in a big, beautiful house, but is continuously filmed used long shots to highlight his isolation there. Jane is a bubbly and charismatic presence who counteracts Cheyenne’s downbeat personality, but her role in the story is never really clear. According to the Sight & Sound review, alternative releases of the film included a voice-over narration provided by Jane, which may well have helped to tie her character in to the rest of the story.
The plot of This Must Be the Place contains two main strands: one simply involves the evolution of Cheyenne as a character, and his eventual transition into ‘normal’ adult life, and the other is concerned with his journey across America to find the Nazi war criminal who had tormented his father at Auschwitz. While we’d expect a Holocaust-themed storyline to be dealt with very seriously, Sorrentino seems to focus far more on Cheyenne’s character and the relatively trivial encounters that he has with other people. There’s a lot of content that seems to be completely out of place with the overall plot, and several truly surreal moments, such as one scene that features a bison for reasons unknown. However, it is these little anecdotal details that are actually the most compelling within the film. They help to build a clearer image of Cheyenne’s character, fleshing him out from the initial caricature of an aged rocker. The story of his search also doesn’t make a great deal of sense. We don’t see much of how Cheyenne pieces the clues together, he just seems to be drifting from place-to-place at random for much of the movie. When he eventually finds the man who he has been looking for, it seems slightly anti-climactic in some ways, despite the use of a hefty and intense monologue.
Cheyenne lives in the past, and fears the approach of death. Many of his interactions in the film are with young people – a teenage goth who he hangs out with at home in Dublin, an American diner waitress, and her son who he plays guitar for – which suggests that he remains young at heart. A humorous juxtaposition is created in one scene where he pays a visit to an elderly woman’s home. The house is all floral wallpaper, teacups and saucers, and embroidered decorations – so of course Cheyenne sticks out like a sore thumb. The juxtaposition between old and young is also brilliantly suggested through the location of the home of Cheyenne’s young friend, Mary (Eve Hewson who, incidentally, is the daughter of U2′s Bono). A gigantic glass structure – the Aviva rugby stadium in Dublin – looming over the little old houses, demonstrates a similar contrast between retro and modern. The death of Cheyenne’s father, plus an encounter with David Byrne, seems to trigger some kind of self-awareness for him. He feels the need to find something to give his life purpose, which is why his search for his father’s tormentor begins.
A conversation from the beginning of the film, where Cheyenne is described as being too childlike to ever have tried smoking, becomes relevant towards the ending when we finally see him smoke his first cigarette. Yes, Cheyenne has grown up, and in the very next scene we see him dressed conventionally. His long black hair has been cut short and he wears no make-up. But should we really be entirely pleased that Cheyenne has now become ‘normal’? By this point we’ve grown to love Cheyenne, his hilarious observations (my favourite line from the film was the simple, “Why is Lady Gaga…?”) and his strange habit of trailing around a wheeled shopping cart (replaced by a suitcase later in the film) everywhere he goes.
This film is completely all-over-the-place, but it possesses a strange charm, much like Cheyenne himself. The cinematography is very creative and obvious, Sorrentino is obviously not aiming for a realist aesthetic. The camera swoops around continuously, it is very rarely static and the director makes much use of elaborately-angled crane shots. The plot jumps around similarly, with many elements not really seeming necessary and never being tied together. On top of the search for a Nazi war criminal, all the strange and pointless encounters met by Cheyenne on his journey, and the character of his wife who doesn’t seem to serve any purpose, there’s also a missing person storyline which never goes anywhere. Despite its flaws (and there are many of them), the beauty and humour of the film manage to just about stop it from being a total disaster.