As seen from the credits, this film, which follows the surrealistic journey of a has-been American rocker, is a massive co-production comprised of many European and trans-Atlantic partners.
Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne (we never learn his birth name), a middle-aged rock star who quit the music business 20 years ago for a sedate life in Ireland with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand). They live in a stately mansion away from the city, playing racket ball in their empty pool and practicing tai chi. Cheyenne doesn't really do much except follow his financial portfolio and try to help a young girl called Mary with her family and love life. But it isn't what Cheyenne does or doesn't do that defines him; it is his mere idiosyncratic existence that makes you interested in him. Sean Penn gives the performance of his life as a man who is dressed like a new version of The Cure's Robert Smith with the strangest tone of voice, an odd sense of humor and facial tics you never knew existed.
It is almost like he has given up on life and retired to a comfort zone where no one can touch him as he strolls around streets with his shopping cart. But there is something utterly wrong with his secluded and unproductive life, and Cheyenne knows it. When news of his father's illness comes, he decides to visit his home in New York to bid him farewell. We learn that Cheyenne is actually Jewish and his father was a victim of the Holocaust. His father's friend, the notorious Nazi hunter Mordecal Midler (Judd Hirsch) urges Cheyenne to find his father's concentration camp tormentor. And so, of all people, the timid and oddball Cheyenne finds himself on a journey across America to hunt down this ex-Nazi with a carry-on he drags along the way.
This is not a journey of vengeance as one would think, but an “Odysseus-like” journey in which Cheyenne has enlightening encounters with strange people; some of them kind, some of them not so kind. At the heart of the film are the philosophical and genuine conversations he has with them.
Perhaps it is not so fitting to combine a very political theme such as the Holocaust and an ex-rocker's existential crisis into one movie, but I am one of those who believe that this strange mix works perfectly. There are many themes here that are subtly laid out by director Sorrentino: forgiveness, understanding, self-confrontation and compassion. The dialogues are almost pitch-perfect as they exude a quality and reflection on life that most of us have chosen to avoid and they are not laid out didactically but in an organic flow. The viewer becomes entranced by the humor and accompanying wisdom that threads these conversations.
When Cheyenne finally does confront his father's tormentor, events take a different twist towards a direction we never expected. Up to that point, we have been waiting for this confrontation but we realize it was the journey until then that really mattered, and not the false climax.
The film is awash with the beautiful soundtrack of David Byrne, who also has a cameo role playing an old friend of Cheyenne. Attuned to its content, the film transpires as one in which music plays one of the leading roles. It is a pure audio-visual journey in which the ears and the eyes both play vital roles in succumbing to its magic.
Penn's acting also plays an immense role in helping this film become what it is; it walks the thin line between magnificence and madness. Another actor might have transformed the film into a matter of ridicule.
Some viewers will be irritated and will lack the patience to succumb to the slow-burning rhythm of the film, but those who are patient enough will experience a unique foray into a surrealist place that is not so far from transcendence. This truly must be the place.
‘This Must Be The Place’
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, David Byrne