Film: This Must Be The Place
Lord knows how director Paulo Sorrentino and writing partner Umberto Contarello cooked up Sean Penn’s character for This Must Be The Place, or its bizarre quest narrative; but their tale of an ageing, Nazi-hunting goth-rocker is a real gem, and the kind of film you feel you could watch again and again.
Named after the Talking Heads song, one of the highlights of the film—and there are a lot—is an eye-catching live rendition of said title-number from former frontman David Byrne, who cameos as a friend of Penn’s retired musician. Byrne, together with Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, also wrote a bunch of original material for the soundtrack, which, alongside tracks from Iggy Pop and Sigur Rós vocalist Jónsi, provides perfectly matched musical vibes for the film’s whimsically sincere tone.
Penn himself—who I’ve always thought of as a conceited fuck with no sense of humour—is actually brilliant and enormously endearing in the lead role. The most immediate visual reference for his funereally dressed, crazily-coiffed and heavily made-up Cheyenne is The Cure’s Robert Smith, although his weirdly shrill voice and largely reticent demeanour maybe puts him closer to a middle-aged Edward Scissorhands. A shuffling former rockstar with a sunny, gregarious wife (the always excellent Frances McDormand) and a mind clearly addled by years of drug-related excess, another obvious comparison is Ozzy Osbourne. Not that any of those references make any sense within the context of the rest of the film, but then that’s part of the charm.
The first chunk of the movie is set in Dublin, where Cheyenne’s been living for thirty years with his mismatched spouse in a designer-decorated mansion, having apparently quit the music game after two of his young fans committed suicide. Wheelie-basket in tow, he traipses round supermarkets and shopping malls getting funny looks from the locals, plays pelota in an empty swimming pool in his garden, and haphazardly attempts to set up a date for his young goth friend. Suddenly there’s a call from the States, and he’s off on a ship to visit his dying father, with whom he hasn’t spoken since moving to Ireland. Apparently Pops, a holocaust-survivor, has spent much of that time trying to hunt down the escaped Nazi-guard at whose hands he suffered in the camps, and it falls to Cheyenne to finish the search.
So the film gains momentum (not that it was getting dull), developing into an episodic odyssey across America, upon which a host of well-drawn and entertainingly idiosyncratic characters map out Cheyenne’s path to a final, emotively redemptive encounter. A history teacher with a pet goose, a man who claims to have invented wheeled luggage, and a high-powered stockbroker (played by a slick-haired Shea Whigham channelling Michael Douglas in Wall Street, a movie which—easter-egg alert—previously featured the titular Talking Heads song) are among those encountered, while a deadpanning Penn acts as the perfect ballast for Sorrentino to throw in hilarious splashes of bizarro-comedy, as well as some touching moments that deftly tease out the themes of family, fatherhood, emotional introspection and revenge without ever becoming earnest or overly-sentimental. In many ways a classic road movie, it’s invited comparisons with Wim Wenders, echoing in particular the Paris, Texas director’s visual wit. There’s also more than a hint of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre about the film, which is imbued (in a very good way) with a similarly dry sense of humour as well as, more generally, an aesthetic preoccupation that’s embodied in some glorious cinematography: Sorrentino’s camera arcing, pirouetting and shifting perspective in fluid tracking movements at every opportunity.
The narrative’s take on the Holocaust is an unusual one, but one that remains respectful, while there are some loose ends—a friend’s missing son and a betrayal of trust are sub-plots that don’t go anywhere. But errant, spooling threads are par for the course in a film which revels in the unexpected, and which maintains a paradoxically satisfying sense of ambiguity, and, at times, inscrutability. As Cheyenne puts it as he bemusedly watches his borrowed 4×4 truck spontaneously combust, ‘A lot of unusual things have been happening to me lately’. With a similar degree of surprise—for me anyway—This Must Be the Place is the most enjoyable film of the year so far.
This Must Be The Place is released in the UK on Friday 6th April