Retired rocker’s odd encounters
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 9, 2012
Sean Penn makes a striking screen presence in “This Must Be the Place,” a smart, funny and original road movie by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”). Playing a retired glam rocker named Cheyenne, Penn enters the movie with a visual rimshot -- hiding under a mop of shoe-polish-black hair and a layer of heavy makeup that’s still not quite heavy enough to disguise his incongruously weary longshoreman’s face.
Wearing mostly black, and walking with a gingerly step that betrays his middle-aged character’s sciatica, the actor affects a mincing, affectless whisper throughout the film, as if to speak any louder, or more emphatically, would simply hurt too much. His dialogue is punctuated by a disturbing laugh that doesn’t seem to be emanating from a grown man so much as from the mouth of a 14-year-old girl who’s too nervous about her braces to show her teeth.
It’s an over-the-top performance that comes this close to being indigestible. For a sizable chunk of the audience, the taste of it that you get in the trailer will probably be more than enough. But if you give Penn (and the movie) a chance, the character works, movingly and somewhat miraculously.
The movie is more than just a mannerist tour de force. There’s also a crazy plot, though it takes about an hour for it to kick in. Opening in Dublin, where Cheyenne lives with his sweetly goofy wife (the incandescently no-nonsense Frances McDormand), “This Must Be the Place” shambles a bit before the story gets started, but it’s far from time wasted.
The first half of the movie introduces us to some other indelible characters, among them Cheyenne’s teenage Goth friend, Mary (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2 singer Bono), and Mary’s mother (Olwen Fouere). The latter character is a haunted, almost mute woman who’s pining for her son Tony. Although his absence is never fully explained, it’s pivotal to the film’s ultimate message of reconciliation.
There are additional mysteries. Cheyenne and Mary visit a grave site -- don’t worry, it will be explained, though not immediately -- whose occupants hint at layers and layers of backstory. The universe of “This Must Be the Place” extends well beyond the edges of the screen, and it feels like it started to take shape long before the action of the film begins.
The main narrative, in fact, has to do with the past. Cheyenne’s father (Fritz Weaver, heard in a series of poetic voice-overs) is dying. When Cheyenne travels to New York to say his goodbyes, he learns that the old man, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to the pursuit of his Nazi tormentor at Auschwitz, a man named Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven). Cheyenne takes up the cause of his father’s revenge, traveling to Michigan, New Mexico and Utah, with the encouragement of Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch).
And the movie, deep down, has very little to do with any of that.
Trailing Lange, who appears to be on to the fact that he’s being hunted, the peripatetic Cheyenne has a series of sweetly strange encounters with Lange’s relatives and acquaintances that illuminate the film’s ambitious themes. Those themes include -- in addition to vengeance and forgiveness -- love and hate, fear and bravery, happiness and sadness, good, evil, hope and hopelessness.
That’s a lot to chew on. But Sorrentino’s film has a big appetite.
Visually, it’s photographed with an eye for the absurd. A man in a Batman costume wanders across the screen, apropos of nothing. Later, a bison appears outside Cheyenne’s motel window. Written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello with a poetic touch, it’s filled with lovely, if meandering interludes. Cheyenne’s sojourn with Lange’s granddaughter Rachel (Kerry Condon) -- a young woman with whom he develops a powerful and unexpected rapport -- does little to advance the plot, but it’s heart-piercingly tender.
Oh, and that Nazi story line? It eventually gets resolved, if not in the way you think. Sorrentino brings a distinctly un-Hollywood sensibility to “This Must Be the Place,” whose title refers to a prominently featured Talking Heads song (at one point rendered by Rachel’s young son and Cheyenne, in a beautifully inept duet).
As the movie goes on, Cheyenne starts to look less and less strange, while the sweetly surreal world around him seems more so.
Contains obscenity, a sex scene, sexual dialogue and drug references.