DIRECTED BY: Paolo Sorrentino
FEATURING: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch
PLOT: A retired Goth rocker hunts for the Nazi who persecuted his deceased father in a concentration camp.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s worth watching just to see Sean Penn in Goth drag, but one of the world’s weirdest movies this ain’t.
COMMENTS: The reason to see This Must Be the Place is Sean Penn’s high-concept, high-pitched performance as an emotionally stunted man-child serving a self-imposed sentence of early retirement while living off royalties from his pop star youth. I think that the movie probably works better with an against-type movie star in the lead than it would with an unknown or a character actor; seeing Penn, who has a reputation as an onscreen firebrand prone to fits of violence, playing an effeminate ex-rocker in makeup adds another level of incongruity to an already oddball tale. Penn plays Cheyenne as a man who’s completely drained, so much that you might think his corpse-like pallor comes not from foundation powder but from a total lack of circulation. He walks slowly, as if his bones ache, and with his eyeglasses on a rhinestone lanyard, he often looks like someone’s grandma. At least in the early part of the film, his answer to nearly every question is a bemused “I don’t know”; he seems to be waiting to die in a kind of post-heroin, pre-senility middle-aged twilight. Unfortunately, the script starts off reflecting the same bored aimlessness as its subject, spending its first half-hour dithering around in Cheyenne’s retirement in Ireland, focusing on an extraneous menagerie of quirky friends (an overweight Lothario, a Goth girl and her straight-laced paramour, a mother whose son has gone missing) who serve no function in the main plot. The story picks up speed once Cheyenne gets the call saying that his estranged father has died and makes his way to America, where he discovers pop’s lifelong quest to track down a small-time Nazi who tormented him as a boy at Auschwitz. Following the clues uncovered by his father gives Cheyenne a purpose, and he morphs into a laconic angel of vengeance, touring the United States and engaging in eccentric conversations with middle Americans (including a brief encounter with Harry Dean Stanton as a retired airline pilot obsessed with luggage). He encounters several casually weird and dreamy bits on his odd journey, including an incident where he’s trapped in a traffic jam caused by a giant promotional bottle of whiskey, visitations by a goose and a buffalo, and a vision of an elderly Hitler passing by on a platform pulled by a tractor. “A lot of unusual things have been happening to me lately,” Cheyenne tells a trucker in his detached falsetto after his rental pickup truck spontaneously catches fire. Penn has some great confessional moments that explain Cheyenne’s lassitude, and he brings this unique and scarcely credible character to life; it’s a shame that the script couldn’t be more economical in introducing the rocker. When Cheyenne’s not hunting Nazis, his halfhearted, girlish giggle and stoned, distant demeanor can get annoying.
The film’s title was suggested by a Talking Heads song, which is performed live by David Byrne in the middle of the movie, and then sung again later by a freckle-faced kid. “You’re delusional,” Cheyenne calmly explains when the lad insists that Arcade Fire wrote the song.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“As juxtapositions go, regressed Goth rock star and Holocaust could hardly be more bizarre, and bizarre can be good when it’s done deftly. In this case, however, it’s done ponderously and sententiously.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by dwarfoscar, who said, “there is a fair amount of weirdness in it. I really loved that film and its always low-key and quiet craziness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)