Paolo Sorrentino‘s This Must Be The Place is a road movie, and the destination is disappointment. You may not have predicted its cross-country narrative based on the striking poster, which tellingly features a bemused Sean Penn resembling something like a cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and an Affenpinscher. He stars as retired musician Cheyenne, and in the film we follow his journey across the United States. Cheyenne is determined to hunt down and kill the war criminal that once terrorised his recently deceased father. I know what you’re thinking: yes, Sorrentino is trotting out the old ‘bored 80s rocker avenges his dad’s death by hunting down a Nazi’ chestnut.
This Must Be The Place is an ambitious experiment in form and tone, culminating in a precise failure. Every lingering shot, meticulously composed frame, and deliberately calibrated performance is executed to bring the writer-director’s exact vision to life. All involved – from co-writer Umberto Contarello to cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and even composer David Byrne – are pulling together in the same direction, though that direction seems to be off the side of the cliff. Sorrentino’s clarity and single-mindedness is admirable; like watching someone sprint into the ocean with the firm belief that they can make it to the other side before running out of breath. But no matter how commendable their determination is, when their head disappears under the water you’re left thinking, “Well, that was a waste.”
At the height of his fame, Cheyenne fled to Dublin with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand), and hasn’t looked back since. He takes no pleasure in being recognised or complimented for his work, but every morning he still teases his hair, makes up his face, and adorns himself in gothic outfits, like some sort of sad, S&M ghost. Cheyenne is summoned back to New York to farewell his sickly father, but he arrives too late (his fear of flying means he has to take a lengthy cruise instead). Without having spoken to his dad in decades, he can only infer the man’s final wishes from his journal, which reveals the humiliation he felt at Auschwitz during World War 2. Professional Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) compels Cheyenne to complete his pop’s work and find Aloise Lange, the SS Officer who disgraced him all those years ago. So begins a nationwide voyage in which the music legend must traverse middle America, and interact with a variety of characters – including bizarre revisionist history teacher Dorothy (Joyce Van Patten), war widow Rachel (Kerry Condon), and luggage pioneer Robert (Harry Dean Stanton) – along the way.
It’s discomforting to see Penn’s shuffling, giggling, softly-spoken character Cheyenne share the screen with seemingly “real” Americans, in the same way that the picture’s peculiar sense of humour doesn’t quite jive with the frequent references to war, loss, and shame. The easy joke is to suggest a retitling to All Over The Place. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism however. In actuality, the film couldn’t be further from a mess if Sorrentino tried (and he really does try). Unfortunately, the world so intricately crafted here never feels anything other than fabricated, and “real America” feels forced and false. The picture’s loose strands are not tied up in a rewarding manner, which would be acceptable if the central character had grown in an interesting way over the course of the picture. Sadly, a haircut does not a satisfying transformation make.
(The movie is named after Byrne’s Talking Heads track This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), and its highlight is the complicated, single-take performance of the song on stage in New York. The endless covers that follow in its wake are less welcome. )
This Must Be The Place arrives in Australian cinemas April 5, 2012.