This Must Be The Place Movie Review

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.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

14 thoughts on “This Must Be The Place Movie Review”

  1. Hi Karen. I haven’t seen the movie so can’t comment on your findings, but this strikes me as a balanced review. It’s the case for me, also, that films can sometimes be both enjoyable and seriously flawed, but I think this paradox is not so often acknowledged in reviews, where there is a tendency for the critic to take a stance one way or the other. Onya for your fair-mindedness.

    LOLed at your being taken aback over the prospect of an ageing rocker fixing up his young friend with a guy who listened to Mariah Carey! Now that’s a cred issue with the character, even if ya could get past the idea of middle-aged Penn with the moniker Cheyenne sitting around at home still wearing his goth gear and eyeliner! Have to admit, I struggle on all counts there.


  2. Thanks Rolan. The Mariah Carey scene is funny. Mary asks the schmo what kind of music he likes, and Cheyenne mouths an answer to him, which he can’t decipher (and neither could I, most annoyingly), so he haplessly tells the truth: “Mariah Carey.” Eye rolling ensues. Yes, it is a cred issue. What on earth does Cheyenne imagine Mary might see in this humanoid?
    A review should, I guess, critique the work, but I think most people who like cinema can be quite forgiving of flaws. I just saw a cracking Australian film, Wish You Were Here, that held me riveted till the denouement, which was plain silly. And then the last film at Somerville (Elena) was fascinating for its utter tedium, and apparent theme: CRIME DOES PAY! Maybe I’m just easily delighted.
    Hey, any more travel tales in the offing? (Sorry, very awkward segue after the “easily delighted” remark…)

  3. Luckily, I have watched the movie. What a relief!

    I congratulate you on your erudite review.

    Yes, there is mystery in this movie. There are questions to be asked. All of these responses are as complex as the characters we encounter. The twisting ‘plot’ is also a challenge.

    I did see it as a coming of age, road trip movie but with a complex twist. How does one man become the gentle child-like “freak” we meet? How does he then set out to follow the revenge of an estranged father’s life quest? Lost tribes and faith are visited. Sadly….his quest is pathetic as he finds he cannot kill another because of an humiliation. It is here we see his redemption….his humanity. How does he then become the man we see at the end of the movie? I guess, he finally becomes the person so many had adored and lost. Does he now accept his adulthood? Is Tony the man he had avoided?

    My only disappointment; Tony smokes! But …he must! He is now an adult.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Cheryl. Yes, it’s a film that would bear watching again. Intriguing, funny, puzzling and unsatisfactory – sorry to quote myself but I can’t say more than that!

  5. I find it interesting that you seem to have entirely missed the point about Mariah Carey… the line that Cheyenne himself says, that is is bullshit to judge a person’s worth by the music they listen to. Or, to quote Dara O’Briain “Music snobbery is the worst kind of snobbery. ‘Oh, you like those noises, those sounds, in your ear? Do you like them? They’re the wrong sounds. You should like these sounds.’” People who look for such petty reasons to dismiss others only reveal their own shallowness.

    Found this review searching for some explanation as to the Mary and her Mother subplot, which I agree made little to no sense and I think merely detracted from the movie. The fact that he cut his hair and took up smoking was a very unsatisfactory end to his character’s journey, as well. But, his line to Mary about being an insufferable emo hipster was very spot on.

  6. Sarah, of course music snobbery is bullshit; nevertheless it exists, and the fact that the boy likes Mariah Carey’s music is just one part of his incompatibility with Mary. This kind of scene in a film is generally part of the characterisation and it can, due to the (sometimes) shorthand nature of film, fall flat. In a novel, we might have had more background about the boy, might have discovered some qualities in him that Cheyenne admired, might have understood Cheyenne’s motivation in attempting to broker a relationship. But I still think it was a funny scene, even if it did expose our music snobbery. Cheyenne might not himself suffer from it, but he knows that Mary will judge the boy on those grounds.

    Thanks for commenting, and if you ever get to the bottom of the Mary and her mother subplot, please come back and enlighten us!

  7. Actually, I deplore that pervasive contemporary notion that everyone’s opinion on music, the arts generally, and just about everything else – including climate change – is equally worthy. It’s not. There is such a thing as an informed opinion. I would value the opinion of a conductor of the London Philharmonic on ‘classical’ music a whole lot more than, say, the bloke next door whose experience of this musical genre is limited to his CD of Pavarotti’s greatest hits. (And the assessment of the vast majority of the climate scientists on climate change over, say, Tony Abbott’s).

    That’s not to say that I am suggesting everyone does not have a right to their opinions – it’s a democracy, more or less, so think what you like about whatever you like. Just don’t expect me to assign you any cred or spend a moment of my life listening to you if I assess that you don’t have a clue about an area in which I am knowledgeable and vitally interested and do have an informed opinion.

    Does that make me a snob? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

    As for it being “bullshit” to judge a person on their musical taste, I say not necessarily. We assess people all the time on all sorts of things, including their cultural preferences. That’s how we determine whether we are likely to get on with someone, or want to spend time with them. And I’ve gotta say, anyone who cherishes their Mariah Carey collection – or even has one – is gonna have to make up some ground big time in some other areas if I’m going to want to spend any time with them. Liking Mariah Carey is not a deal-breaker, but it’s a pretty bloody serious shortcoming IN MY OPINION.

    As for the quote from Dara O’Briain – what crap. That sort of nonsense leads to mediocrity and the dumbing down in the name of – what, cultural democratisation? – that has landed us in our current vacuous state of celeb worship. Down with that shit, and down with the silly thinking that propagates it.

  8. You crack me up, rolanstein.

    Okay, I’ll bite. Science and cultural preference are not both apples. You are 100% right: we should listen to climate scientists about climate science.

    However, the fact that someone likes to listen to Mariah Carey is an orange or a pear, and not comparable to an apple. It is a liking, and doesn’t confer on them any moral or immoral qualities. This is the point that Sarah was making, and Dara O’Briain (whom I have never heard of and can’t just now be bothered looking up): you don’t get to judge a person because of their musical taste. Again however, you are right, we can and do draw conclusions about people and whether or not we will be compatible with them when we find out something about their musical taste.

    In the end, people ARE experts about their own culture, and mostly they don’t go about trying to foist it on others.

    I could rave on for ages, but in fact – true story! – I am off to the opera tonight and must get ready.

  9. Hahaha – funny ending to your post, Karen.

    I don’t know why you find my comments so hilarious, though, or where you arrived at the idea that I was in some way drawing a moral judgement on someone on account of their musical tastes. Not at all. And in the context of the point I was making we are not talking oranges and apples: the point re informed vs uninformed opinion is the same, whether the arena is taste in music or opinion on climate change. That is, I say informed opinion has credibility; uninformed opinion does not.

    Sorry, but musical taste DOES influence my assessment of a person and whether I want to have anything to do with them, and I strongly suspect the same is true of many people – possibly especially those who deny it loudest. The main difference twixt them and moi is honesty. There ya go – bite on that!

    That is not to say I do not take cultural background and experience into account when I’m making my politically incorrect judgments. eg: I find Thai pop music laughably bland and saccharine, but of course, I didn’t think the worse of my delightful Thai students for loving it. Indeed, I even managed to acknowledge my own cultural ignorance and admit the possibility that I was blind to some of the positive possibilities of these toons due to my cultural orientation.

    Put me with a Westerner who is immersed in our culture, and I would be less magnanimous. It’s all about context.

    Now, tell me you’d be completely nonjudgmental of someone who held Porkys up as an example of fine Western cinema. Or seriously rated Mariah Carey and really got off on listening to her. Pah! Let’s talk real.

    Hope you enjoy your highbrow night at the opera! (I love opera, BTW, but not to listen to outside the theatrical context…there’s that word again).

  10. We’ll have to agree to disagree again.

    Science is a matter of fact. An expert can make statements of fact where facts have been established by the scientific method. An expert in music can state that a piece of music is in the key of C, is in a certain genre, blah blah, etc: various facts that their training enables them to assert. But whether a piece of music is good is a value judgement, and you’ll find music experts will disagree vehemently. That’s all culture, not science.

    Anyway, someone who expresses a preference for listening to a particular singer or musician is not necessarily stating anything about the quality of that music (“seriously rating”), they’re just saying they enjoy listening to it. Ditto for the Porkys watchers. Just as when I savour a toasted cheese sambo, I’m not asserting that it’s fine cuisine – but it’s still delicious! (Actually I have been known to make assertions about fairy bread based on the brilliant combination of soft white bread, the unctuous mouth feel of butter, and the crunch and sweetness of the hundreds and thousands … but that’s a conversation for another day.)

    The opera was interesting. Not at all highbrow. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is a deadset star, but baritone is not my favourite register, and the plot of Don Giovanni has possibly less nuance than a comic strip. The characters are fleshed out like stick figures, too. It all had me thinking about how novels and films and television have probably spoiled us for this kind of buffoonish morality tale on the stage. We are used to backstory and big close ups, and these days we’d want to know why Don Giovanni was such a vile seducer – his mother would probably be blamed (thanks, Freud!). But it was all played for laughs and the female singers especially were grand.

  11. Yep, we will have to agree to disagree. But I think we’re coming at this from different angles. As I see it, you are taking a politically correct philosophical stance, rather than truly engaging with the guts of the argument. Not that I blame you for not wanting to get into that…great tomes have been written on the notion of what constitutes good and bad art, and we’re not likely to add anything terribly enlightening to the literature of criticism in a to-and-fro on a blog. So why bother?

    That said, I’m going to have a stab with a quick and inevitably inadequate and facile coupla comments. With the acknowledgement that it is a very difficult and problematic thesis, I happen to hold the unfashionable view that there is, indeed, such a thing as good and bad art. I find it very difficult to believe that you REALLY disagree with this, since you take on that very assumption any time you write a movie review! If you REALLY didn’t believe there are good and bad movies, that it was all just a matter of opinion (and to that, I say how wishy washy and moderne), all reviewing would be futile, merely an egotistical indulgence on the part of the reviewer.

    Yes, there is also taste – I’m not challenging that. Taste accounts for the disagreement among “music experts” you mention. But I maintain that it is entirely possible, nevertheless, to make valid value judgements on the relative worth of pieces of music (and all other art). At a certain point of quality – and I’m not going to even attempt to elaborate on when – those judgements tip over into the realm of personal taste.

    You’re preaching to the converted re the merits of simple food like a toastie vs (I assume) “fine cuisine”. But you’re proving nothing in relation to the current argument with that example, 1) because you need to be comparing like with like and b) because you are actually referring only to the quality of ‘deliciousness’ as you experience it, which can be common to the simplest foods and the most complex. A discussion of the merits of pieces of art is far more complex, because the qualities of the works being compared are complex, as is their critical appraisal. Complexity is no reason to throw yer hands in the air and accept current platitudes about the merits of all art just being down to consumer preference. That is SO damned glib!

    Re: Anyway, someone who expresses a preference for listening to a particular singer or musician is not necessarily stating anything about the quality of that music (“seriously rating”), they’re just saying they enjoy listening to it.

    True, not necessarily, but they also MAY be making a judgement on the quality of the music – and in many instances are. We can’t know unless we ask them. I don’t see your point.

    To follow on from this, I never said it is wrong to LIKE Porkys. There was never any moral component to my comments. But I would not assign any critical cred to anyone who likes Porkys AND claims that it is an example of fine quality film comedy – even in its genre.

    Idiosyncrasy must always be allowed for, though. As you know, I’m into artisan sourdough bread in a big way. I bake my own because I can turn out better bread than I can buy anywhere in Perth that I’ve tried. I recoiled when I read your comments about fairy bread. This is partly because of my bread fetish, but mostly because of learning with horror that you actually like hundreds and thousands – and fairy bread! However, I know from our communications that you cook and appreciate what sounds like lovely food. Therefore, I wouldn’t now dismiss you as someone who hasn’t a clue about food or has poor taste in food on the basis of a single aberration. See – I might sound Hitleresque in some of my pronouncements, but I’m not. I know full well that we all have our foibles. Not least moi – I have a trash aesthetic that you, I imagine, would struggle to get on to. And why should you? Even I find it weird. But I’m sure – at least, I hope – you wouldn’t dismiss me as clueless as a result. But of course you wouldn’t! Goes against everything you’ve been arguing! So I feel safe there. Unfortunately, so would people who really don’t have a clue! So, not much comfort when I think about it!

    Re: Science is a matter of fact. An expert can make statements of fact where facts have been established by the scientific method.

    Science is not “a matter of fact”. Not always, at least. It is a matter of perceived fact based on scientific method and conventionally accepted prior knowledge, which leaves plenty of room for doubt and argument. And science goes way beyond mere fact; at its most sublime it enters the metaphysical, which is a long way beyond simple fact. But in any case, the point you make is not relevant to my Tony Abbot example. I was not saying there is no valid evidence contra climate change. I was saying that Abbott has no credibility in his stance on climate change because his opinion is inexpert and uninformed relative to the majority scientific opinion. That is not to say that there are not expert climatologists out there who are informed who may have valid arguments that challenge the majority view. My only concern was who has cred and who does not. And that comes down to whether a view is informed or uninformed. Just as with views on art. So from the complex, we arrive at something pretty fundamental and simple, nyet? Like hell! Hahaha.

  12. Wow. I am just trying to figure out whether the hell Cheyenne and Tony were the same person and before you know it am reading an epic battle on music tastes. You guys are both very dedicated to proving your point here. As I feel passionately about this I feel the need to comment. I’m kind of with Rolanstein here and it strikes me that Karen is a little over aware of being politically correct. We all like different stuff and that’s what makes us cool and unique. And that’s why we’re attracted to some people and not others. If we had to consider each person as a partner despite their interests it would be exhausting. Although Mary’s approach was a little cut throat and direct, I get it. I am a bit of a music snob and I’m okay with that. It’s because I really, really love music. I think the issue here is that a lot of commercial music is just that – commercial. It’s made to make money, it’s generic and unoriginal and soulless. I’m not going assess someone’s worth as a person if they like this type of music, I’m just going to assume they’re not that into music. And that is a deal breaker for me. And I am totally confident that this is an acceptable element of my endeavours to find someone who will make me happy. I play music around the house all the time and it can have an amazingly powerful impact on my mood. Having someone that wants to fill my house with Mariah Carey will not have a good influence on my psyche. Or my life. This doesn’t mean I am unaccepting of people who are into different music genres- they have the potential to expand me and my knowledge of music. But commercial music isn’t a different genre, it’s a different market. I don’t want to be with someone that can’t tell the difference. Call me a snob, I call myself clear on what I want.

  13. P.S Gonna comment on the fairy bread too. I LOVE food. Equally as much as music. I appreciate good quality, delicious meals and am usually pretty conscious of making good choices. But just last night I gleefully and drunkenly devoured a Quarter Pounder. I had a moment of amused self reflection with a vegan friend this morning, humoured by the fact that even though I know it’s terrible food, in the right conditions I think it’s friggen awesome. I too can appreciate a bit of fairy bread action. Now Rolanstein before you start fretting, know that I love good bread and am dismayed when I am forced to make do with less than the many scrumptious breads around. But there is some sort if childhood glee in a piece of fairy bread. Same deal with a vegemite or peanut butter sandwich on cheapo white bread. Some sort of nostalgic culinary connection to happy childhood memories I guess. But the difference is this – these things are guilty pleasures, not everyday habits. Karen I’m assuming you don’t eat fairy bread everyday right? And you probably wouldn’t date someone if that was their regular dietary intake… Right? Same with music – if my fella wants to whack on a bit of Mariah Carey here and there I could roll my eyes, sing along and have a bit of a laugh. Guilty pleasure . But if he’s insisting on playing it on a three hour road trip, well we’re going to have some problems. I don’t think this is rocket science here – you need to have a decent whack of overlap with your partners interests. It’s called compatibility. We need to give Mary a break – she’s just cutting to the chase more directly and honestly than the rest of us polite, cautious and politically correct little beings are capable of.

  14. Hi Boofalita. Commiserations on entering the epic battle – or congratulations, and thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts!

    Believe it or not, I think rolanstein and I are actually in agreement about music tastes, which are dictated by cultural context, not an indicator of any moral value attaching to the person who holds them, influenced by the person’s musical education, and definitely to be taken into consideration when choosing a life partner.

    Thanks for your support on the fairy bread issue: you’re right, I don’t eat it every day – in fact I can’t quite remember the last time I had any. Ditto foie gras, wagyu beef, and a variety of other foods that are delicious and have cultural connotations that might add to (or detract from) perceptions of their deliciousness. The bread issue is funny. I never buy bread in the supermarket, and actively hate soft white bread – except where fairy bread is concerned! I guess a bread aficionado would want a sweet brioche or some such, but the cheapest fresh white bread will do for me. Thin sliced. Cold butter. Solid sprinkle of hundreds and thousands. Cut in triangles. Leave the crust on to maintain structural integrity. Feel free not to eat the crust.

    Yes, Cheyenne was Tony. He had self actualised and realised his true identity. This was an intriguing film and I hope to encounter it on television and rethink all these ideas!

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