This Must Be The Place
Sean Penn plays a bored, depressed, and guilt-ridden Goth rocker hiding from the world and his own conscience in writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's new film.
Penn's character, Cheyenne, has been a recluse for two decades. He drifts around his mansion in Ireland, still dressed in full Goth regalia: black clothes, mascara, lipstick, a light dusting of white over his face. The film's title, "This Must Be The Place," comes from a Talking Heads song of the same title; the song, and the film, share a theme of being isolated and feeling out of place even at home.
Cheyenne is not the only one suffering from a sense of dislocation. Tony, the brother of a close family friend named Mary (Eve Hewson), has gone missing; Mary's mother (Olwen Fouere) sits by the window day and night, watching for a sign of his return.
Such watchfulness is echoed in the sudden twist events take. Cheyenne, who is terrified of travel, is coaxed back to New York City by his elderly father's illness; by the time he arrives, the old man is dead. But his diaries offer insight into the emotional distance he seemed to maintain, a remoteness that led to a thirty-year estrangement between father and son. It seems that Cheyenne's father had been a prisoner at Auschwitz; moreover, he was obsessed with tracking down a particular Nazi guard, Aloise Lange.
Could Lange still be alive? If so, is it Cheyenne's duty to find and execute him? A Nazi hunter named Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) assures Cheyenne that Lange could very well still be out there, somewhere, but dismisses Lange as small fry. Cheyenne strikes out on his own to seek out clues to Lange's whereabouts, starting with a visit to the old Nazi's wife and purported widow.
This film offers constant surprises, but also some carefully contrived counterbalances. Among the unexpected pleasures: David Byrne himself pops up to deliver a live rendition of "This Must Be The Place" (one of about half a dozen different versions that Sorrentino finds occasion to roll our way), and Harry Dean Stanton has a cameo as a leathery old man who offers Cheyenne some information.
Cheyenne's affect is that of someone who's been shell-shocked -- or, as the movie suggests, someone who has never grown up. (The way he speaks and acts fits well with the title song's parenthetical alternate title, "Naive Melody.") Like a latter-day Chance (the Peter Sellers character from the 1979 Hal Ashby comedy "Being There"), Cheyenne has both a simplistic way of looking at things and a penchant for coming up with odd sayings that could be seen as gems of wisdom if you're in the mood for that sort of thing. They could also simply be fragments from incomplete thoughts.
Case in point: During a call back home, wife Jane (Frances McDormand), who's waiting fretfully for him, demands of Cheyenne, "What are you doing? Finding yourself?"
"I'm in New Mexico, not India," Cheyenne retorts. And yet it's not long after, when he's found his way to Utah on the trail of his quarry, that Cheyenne has a random brush with a white buffalo -- an animal sacred to American Indians. The spiritual journey doesn't stop there; if the movie is driving at anything with its themes of loss and missing persons, it's a suggestion that we're all linked and even related to one another in ways that exceed the mysterious and veer into the alarming. If Lange helped form his father's character, and Cheyenne is an extension of his father, then is Lange, in some sense, a spiritual father?
The film's most potent image is to show us where Mary lives -- a tidy little neighborhood dwarfed by London's Olympic Stadium. Linked and displaced as our lives might be, the film suggests, they play out at the foot of monumental events and historic triumphs and catastrophes alike. We may be nothing more than the result of a stew replete with beauty and monstrosity; in that, Sorrentino seems to say, is truly are a reflection of God.