Cheyenne is a former rock star who is still rocking the Goth look. Now 50, he relives the days of superstardom with avid young fan and best friend Mary, Living off his royalties he rattles around his grand Dublin mansion until the death of his estranged father calls him to New York.
This Must Be the Place opens in a classic gambit from the strip club, a slow reveal, a burlesque tease: slowly, luxuriously, we see varnished nails, crimson lipstick, and an extreme close-up of eyeliner being applied on a powdered, furrowed face. The eye is tired, blank, drained of vivacity or interest. Pop to medium close-up and we gasp (even if we’ve seen the poster, or seen the trailer): Sean Penn in goth make-up and zombie bouffant. Cheyenne (think Siouxsie—Sorrentino did) is the aging husk of obsolete rock star—mostly Robert Smith of The Cure (if Robert Smith of The Cure had suffered a brain parasite), with a touch of the dotage and affectless wheeze of Ozzy Osbourne, and just a smidgeon of late-career Anna Magnani.
Cheyenne is not at home in his body, in this time, in this world. He shuffles through his mansion without purpose, from kitchen to living room; restless, unable to sit, yet exhausted, he stands awkwardly staring at Jamie Oliver on TV. He can barely muster the labour it takes to blow a lock of matte hair out of his face. He hasn’t performed in decades, quitting the business after a young fan killed himself and he realised the pointlessness of goth pop in the face of real tragedy. Sunk in a life that he can’t bring into focus, he lumbers through Dublin with a shopping trolley like a walker so he won’t fall over. He shops in a soulless grocery market (the music piped in is the same as that used in the mental ward in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) but lacks the will or attention span to see it through. ‘I feel numb, burn with a weak heart,’ sings David Byrne in the 1983 Talking Heads’ song This Must Be the Place, ‘guess I must be having fun.’ He meets a teenage friend in a mall and is approached by a fan who puts a camera up into his face and flashes; Cheyenne barely reacts. ‘There’s something not quite right here,’ he says, an inkling that there might be more here, some embers still glowing in his heroin-toasted brain.
‘The way I go about making a film is to determine the character of the protagonist,’ director Paolo Sorrentino says, ‘once all the aspects of his character have been established a story comes out of them, but not before. It’s rare for me to start from the story and invent the characters.’ This Must Be The Place is, even more than any of his previous films, a character study. Sorrentino continues, ‘I find this is a healthy way to work. Usually when you’re imprisoned by a plot you end up with characters that are slaves to that plot and often you find yourself with quite sketchy characters because they have to obey the laws and rules of the story. I’m less interested in telling a story full of coups de theatre and more interested in showing a man’s nature.’
Sorrentino has forged a brilliant, singular niche chronicling spiritually dispossessed men ageing gracelessly; a maestro of male menopause. His films detail the crises when dreams become ridiculous adolescent fantasies and when accomplishments are totalled and don’t really amount to much; or, as a character says in Consequences of Love (2004), ‘The show’s over. Get used to it.’ In that film Titta (Toni Servillo) is a taciturn man of little trust and no friends, living in a Swiss hotel, a life as antiseptic as Cheyenne’s Irish Elba, without humour or engagement. Happy—or not unhappy; anhedonic, really—he periodically takes large shipments of Mafia cash to a bank. But his hermetic life is cracked open when he lets a barmaid into his affections. All ends badly, of course, reinforcing the idea that love is only transformative in the sense that ruins everything. His first film, One Man Up (2001), is a double helix of failure featuring two men named Antonio Pisapia: one is a star football player (Andrea Renzi) whose injury cripples his future, the other (Servillo) is a pop crooner and housewife heartthrob (and also a cokehead and asshole), who gets caught with an underage girl. In The Family Friend (2006)—Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) is an ugly man and penurious loan shark who lives in a shithole with his bedridden mother and wears a potato poultice wrapped around his head. He insinuates himself into a local family, and particularly onto the daughter who is about to be married. Geremia is a toad wanting to be kissed by a princess, but he stays a toad, and she wipes off her hand. And finally, in Il Divo (2008), Toni Servillo plays Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy, going through his ups and many downs—his operatic corruption, Mafia links, and the humiliation of a trial that leaves him a broken man, cleaved with regrets; an inglorious end to an infamous career. But in all this despair the films are so much fun. They might all centre on characters in dwindling free-fall, but they’re energetically and witty filmed, captivating and inventive.
Penn’s performance here is performance art. Few actors can push a character to such an extreme that, like a soap bubble, it could burst at any moment. One hesitation, one wink to the audience, and it would collapse. Marlon Brando could do it. Peter O’Toole can do it. Al Pacino can do it. It’s courageous and breathtaking. Penn’s normal physical power is gone—Cheyenne has a fragile rigidity, like a chicken bone left in the desert in a high wind, his voice slow and tenuous, as though his body is lacking energy, or his soul lacking the will, to speak louder than a high-pitched asthmatic whine. But he is magnetic, his presence as irresistible as the gravity of a black hole. If he is floating and purposeless as a dead piece of space junk, his phlegmatic wife of 35 years, Jane (Frances McDormand) is earthbound and sure-footed: she grounds him, humours him, and without reservation loves him. ‘It’s a relationship in which the vague abstractedness of the man is compensated for by the unrelenting solidity of the woman who makes it possible for life to progress without traumas and useless dramas,’ Sorrentino says, ‘ I stole little bits from my relationship with my wife.’
This Must Be The Place is not a tragedy, even a feel-good tragedy like Sorrentino’s previous films. It’s a fairy tale, or myth, with an untested—and reluctant—hero yanked from complacency and ennui. The force that bumps Cheyenne out of his inertia is a phone call from New York—his father is dying. So off he heads, contending with his fear his fear of flying, his fear of family, his fear of living, really. He kisses Jane goodbye, patting her on the shoulder like an old dog or unfamiliar child. Finally reaching America by boat, he is too late. At his father’s death bed he notices, perhaps for the first time, the holocaust tattoo on his arm. He is introduced to Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch)—who, besides besides being his father’s financial advisor, is also an rabid Nazi hunter (‘Those are our teeth!’)—and learns that his father had been obsessed with tracking down Aloise Lange, a Nazi who had been the camp guard when he was in Auschwitz.
‘Something’s not right here,’ Cheyenne says.
‘You even know about the holocaust?’ Mordecai snorts.
‘In a general sort of way.’
‘And your father. Did you know your father?’
‘In a general sort of way.’
Cheyenne broaches that, perhaps, he might continue his father’s search. Mordecai dismisses him, saying that Nazi-hunting is ‘not for trendy boys like you.’ Besides, he says, Lange is only ‘small fish.’ Mordecai wants to hunt sharks. ‘Even Nazi hunters play by the rules of show business.’
It’s at this point I sat up, electrified, and thought: ‘What?’ This was not a movie about an ageing musician being an ageing musician, a Still Crazy, an Anvil!, a Spinal Tap (which would have been great, especially with Penn). A befuddled ex-rock star as Nazi hunter? Delicious! ‘As a viewer I find the best films are those which don’t give me any clues at the beginning about what I’m going to see,’ Sorrentino says, ‘Usually my approach is that each film is the last film I’m going to make. And so when I adopt this approach I find it helpful not to waste the opportunity by sticking to one genre, but to dabble in all sorts of genres and stick to none of them.’ This is by far Sorrentino’s most clueless (in that way that makes the best films the best films) movie, an exhilarating carnival funhouse.
This Must Be The Place is really a satire of the hero’s-journey film, less Odysseus than Candide. Instead of leaving a mundane existence for the fabulous, Cheyenne leaves the rarefied life of a pop recluse for the quotidian, but, seeing with new eyes, the ordinary becomes fantastic. The film is as much from Sorrentino’s POV as it is Cheyenne’s: a cartoonish, even fetishistic, view of America that gives This Must Be The Place its hyperreal energy. ‘I wanted to take on, shamelessly and recklessly, all the iconographic movie locations that have made me love this work since I was a boy,’ Sorrentino says, ‘New York, the American desert, the gas stations, the bars with the long counters, the remote horizons. American places are a dream and, when you find yourself in them, they don’t become real but continue to be a dream. I have this very strange feeling of being in a constantly suspended reality in the United States.’
This Must Be the Place is a love letter from an affectionate misanthrope, delighting in the ebullient self-delusion of America, the innocent overblown self-satisfaction, the unexamined eccentricity. Cheyenne’s trek through the heartland is not a dangerous one but instead a brilliant gallery of oddities and neutered archetypes, a shiny fairy tale of trailer park America (in actuality it’s a very dicey place for any freak—just look at the recent Republican debates). Sorrentino’s fluid camera is always moving, from one stunning idiosyncratic frame to the next, echoing both Edward Hopper and the Coen brothers: Cheyenne discusses tattoos with a well-inked homunculus in a bar (‘do you like tattoos?’ the man asks. ‘I was just asking myself that,’ Cheyenne says, ‘I haven’t made up my mind’), meets another man in a gun shop (‘What sort of weapon are you interested in?’ Cheyenne thinks a minute. ‘One that hurts’ ‘I’ve got just the thing—you can kill not just with satisfaction, but with impunity.’), and even turns up at a David Byrne concert (who, incidentally, did all the music for the film with Will Oldham). In one of Sorrentino’s most thrillingly choreographed single takes Byrne performs ‘This Must Be The Place,’ starting with a gravity defying go-go girl and ending on Cheyenne sobbing in the rear of the club, sublime tears of joy and desperate yearning. Cheyenne goes backstage. In the face of Byrne’s true art, true talent, he feels like a like fraud, like a pandering huckster. ‘Why are we such good friends?’ he asks, ‘we have nothing in common.’ Byrne, Cheyennes realises, redefined the boundaries of art and music, while all he did was sing ‘depressed songs for depressed kids.’
Cheyenne’s trail finally takes him to a snowy town on the Utah plain, and things get more enigmatic when he meets Robert Plath. Or maybe it’s just because Plath is played by Harry Dean Stanton, the paragon of American roots surrealism, who, without trying, exudes both the myth of the old west and the dark self-knowing underbelly of the American dream.
The film is full of surprises. Sorrentino takes time to use the camera to tell jokes, mise en scene jokes—a willing suspension of narrative necessity—with a glee only equalled by (again) the Coen brothers. Sorrentino is a playful master in love with the techniques and possibilities of his medium.
The only flaw is the redemptive ending. After two hours of this invigorating, smart, kind, and giddy film our—the viewers’— quest has been fulfilled. Who cares about the characters’! I mean, Geremia didn’t get redeemed, nor did Titto or the two Antonio Pisapias. Fuck redemption.