Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Featuring: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, David Byrne, Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton
Review: Boomtown Rap guest reviewer, Karen
Other reviews by Karen: The Artist
I vaguely remember reading somewhere that not swinging one’s arms while walking is indicative of some mental health issue. Google suggests it’s autism; Sean Penn, in his characterisation of the superannuated rock star Cheyenne, may have had the same thing in mind as he slowly, with hunched shoulders and immobile arms, tiptoe-loped through the long, weird, disjointed road movie, This Must Be the Place.
The Cheyenne character spans the ages from Voltaire’s wise-child Candide to the Beatles’ fool on the hill. Modelled, apparently, on Robert Smith of The Cure, Penn’s Cheyenne speaks high in pitch and low in volume, like Michael Jackson, lives in an Irish country mansion with his capable, upbeat wife Jane (Frances McDormand), and calls none to mind so much as Ozzy Osbourne.
The film spends way too much time establishing the facts of his current existence, while simultaneously failing to explain said facts. We get pretty rapidly that he is retired from an iconic rock career; that he’s either bored or depressed (he thinks the latter, his wife suggests the former); that he feels responsible for some deaths (of fans); that he’s childless but connected in some way to a young woman, Mary, and her mother. All of this is presented in a fairly piecemeal way that’s at odds with the extraordinary camerawork that swoops, tracks, travels and dollies in long scenes that plain camerawork fans like me will find amazing and intrusive in equal measure.
A storyline that seems to be about the artistic value or musicianship of Cheyenne’s body of work is introduced early, never to resurface, and Cheyenne’s own doubts about his worth are revisited later in a gratuitous scene with David Byrne, who collaborated on the music for the film, and who appears in a brilliant but largely irrelevant set-piece that features more of the previously mentioned extraordinary camerawork. (In this case a wide shot of a stage travels back to encompass a band, then its audience, and pans, turning, to zoom in to a close up of Cheyenne at the back of the crowd. The stage mechanics in this scene are worth the price of admission alone; it’s a pretty speccy scene – but one that arguably did not belong in this story.)
The encounter with David Byrne happens in America, where Cheyenne has travelled by ocean liner to attend the death of his father. News of his father’s illness has arrived via a red telephone in the house of Mary’s mother – one of a few red telephones whose significance escaped me, along with the nature of his relationship to Mary’s mother.
The film does a sharp turn for its second half: now we discover that Cheyenne has come from a traditional Jewish family, from whom he has been estranged, and that his father, a Holocaust survivor, has spent his life tracking down his Auschwitz persecutor, one Aloise Lange, now resident in the US and possibly still alive. Improbably, Cheyenne takes up the hunt, and what has been a character study turns into a road movie, complete with chance encounters, transformative brief relationships, and ultimately growth and redemption.
This is a really enjoyable film to watch, intriguing, puzzling, funny and unsatisfactory in turn. It’s not an artistic success, I don’t think: too many events simply don’t cohere (eg: there’s a character who lends his car to Cheyenne – who seems to be the least likely person in the entire universe to have a driver’s licence and to take on the task of driving around America – and who is never seen again, except in flashback when the car, again improbably, goes up in flames).
Further, the Holocaust theme is too big for the brief showing it gets, and the idea of the beauty of vengeance expounded by Lange in the climactic scenes, while huge and worthy of examination (in another film, perhaps), is completely separate from the experience that Cheyenne has had, the understanding he reaches, and the punishment he imposes.
And then the ending: come on! Resolve the central issue of your life, and give up on your hair dye and eyeliner. Yeah, right. I just didn’t buy it, and I still didn’t get who Mary’s mother was, and why she would be interested in the fact that Richard – whoever he was (yes, we met him in Brooklyn, or Queens, or wherever, but who was he?) – had grown into a fine handsome man. Or why an ageing rocker would think it was a good idea to fix up his young friend Mary with a guy who listened to Mariah Carey!
All of these reservations aside, I reckon it’s a film worth seeing: for the performance of Sean Penn, for the luminous Frances McDormand, for the extras from Freak Central Casting, for the show-off camerawork (eat your heart out, Antonioni!), for the low-key hero’s journey and the funky music track.
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