This Must Be The Place Review

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s first American picture sees Sean Penn take on an unseemly transformation, even taking into account the diverse range of roles the outspoken actor’s been known to take on.

Penn plays the character of Cheyenne; a frail retired rock star who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cure’s Robert Smith as he continues applying the make-up, lipstick and hairspray of his former on stage persona more out of habit than any sort of sensibility.

This Must Be The Place begins in Ireland and, at first glance, fits the mould of a quirky, laconic character portrait in a similar vein to that of a Jim Jarmusch film. Cheyenne wanders around his spotless mansion only occasionally venturing into the more modest environments of his sixteen year old friend Mary who, despite their age difference, is a kindred tortured soul.

The plot doesn’t appear to lead anywhere, until Cheyenne hears news of his estranged father’s death and decides on a whim to escape his sheltered bubble in Ireland and visit his Jewish relatives in New York for the funeral. Once there, our odd protagonist’s journey takes an unusual turn when he learns of his father’s lifelong search for his concentration camp persecutor who allegedly retired to America.

Taking up his father’s seemingly fruitless search, Cheyenne embarks upon a road trip across vast swathes of Middle America. Even in this vastly contrasting US landscape, Cheyenne is still a stranger in a strange land; an uncomfortable juxtaposition amongst the roadside motels, gas stations and vast stretches of highway he awkwardly traverses.

This familiar iconography of classic Americana is always pleasing to the eye, particularly with Sorrentino’s imaginative framing and beautifully composed shots, all punctuated by a fitting soundtrack written by David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

Yet while there’s some compelling imagery coupled with touching moments of vulnerability and humour This Must Be The Place often feels confused, as though it’s trying a little too hard not to be pigeonholed.

The same could be said of its male lead, who gives an endearing if occasionally irritating performance here. Shuffling around in full Goth attire, a trolley and pair of reading glasses, Penn looks something like you’d expect of Edward Scissorhands’ granny.

Bewildered at his surroundings and all he encounters, it’s clear from the outset through his shy, childlike demeanour that this is another performer who’s been unable to grow up or experience any true grounding in reality.

Stylistically, there are similarities with Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas and to a lesser extent the Coens’ No Country for Old Men.

This Must Be The Place isn’t as good as either of these, suffering from a somewhat underwhelming resolution, but such comparisons shouldn’t detract from Sorrentino’s thoughtful and accomplished US debut.

Richard Buxton

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