This Must Be the Place (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : An offbeat journey of an aging rock star

“This Must Be the Place” is an offbeat drama about a sad man who has been hiding inside his appearance of the past as his shell for a long time. When Cheyenne, played by Sean Penn in a striking appearance we have never expected from him, starts another day of his languid life, he goes through his usual routine. He manicures nails, rouges his lips, puts eyeliner around his detached eyes, and tidies up his bushy hair style from the 1980s before going outside in his punky black attire.

With such a showy style from the past, it is easy to draw attention from others around him, but he has been sort of a familiar fixture in his neighbourhood in Dublin. We come to learn that he aborted his lucrative career as a rock star years ago after he was devastated by some terrible tragedy which happened around that neighbourhood. While he has little interest in music or playing music now, his past career has supported him pretty well; he lives in a big manor with his caring no-nonsense wife Jane(Frances McDormand), who works as a fireman in the neighborhood, and money keeps coming to him thanks to the royalty of his songs, and, as a mild entertainment for him, he also tries stock investment through his friend’s help.

And the life keeps going on for him without any change. The people recognize him at times, but Cheyenne is not particularly interested in getting their attention. Though he has a sort of groupie hanging around him at the mall, but she is more like a daughter to be chaperoned by him. In one humorous scene, he sets up a date for her in his house as her matchmaker, but, to his disappointment, it ends not so successfully.

On one day, he gets an urgent message from his hometown in US. His father, whom he has not corresponded with 30 years, has few days to live, so Cheyenne returns to US, but he is too late because he chooses to travel by ship instead of plane due to his fear of plight, though he manages to attend his father’s funeral with his family and others while maintaining his usual attire and appearance. He looks odd compared to the others wearing formal attires, but they seem to accept what he is(or was).

After funeral, he come to learn that his father had been privately pursued a Nazi criminal hiding somewhere around US. Although that guy in question, named Aloise Lange, is not a major Nazi criminal like Josef Mengele or Adolf Eichmann, his father was determined to search for Lange because of his personal reason; when he was in Auschwitz concentration camp during the World War II, Lange deeply humiliated him, and Cheyenne’s father had wanted to get his revenge since that unforgettable moment.

After that point, the movie goes into road movie mode as Cheyenne starts his long journey for his father across the US continent, so we get lots of gorgeous views of plains and roads while following him and observing many small things happening around him. Besides the people who may give the crucial clues for finding Lange, he also meets and interacts with various people including a tattoo artist who is actually nicer than he looks and a mysterious old Indian who suddenly appears and then suddenly disappears. In fact, we even encounter Harry Dean Stanton at one point, who was the journey itself in Wim Wenders’ great road movie “Paris, Texas”(1984) and also was the arrival point in David Lynch’s gentle road movie “The Straight Story”(1999).

As such people drift by him, Sean Penn subtly reveals a man-child with unresolved and resentful feelings remaining behind his detached face and tentative mannerisms. Penn has surprised us with unexpected performances as shown in “Sweet and Lowdown”(1999) and “Milk”(2008), and, again, he shows us something we have never imagined from him through one of his best performances; as deadpan as Bill Murray, he brings both humors and pathos to his passive character who somehow finds the will to accomplish his father’s mission even after spending so much time in his comfort zone. I do not know whether he has been searching for such a chance, but it is always nice to do something for breaking out of shell, isn’t it?

The movie is directed by Paolo Sorrentino. He impressed me a lot with his previous work “Il Divo”(2008), a very stylish and entertaining movie about a very compelling and enigmatic real-life politician who might be more insidious than the movie implies, and “This Must Be the Place” looks far different from “Il Divo” even though it is also stylish in its own understated way.

This is Sorrention’s first English film, but the movie shows no awkwardness in his transition, and, with his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino engages us to his story with interesting visual ways of presenting the places and people on the big screen. I especially like the longtake scene where Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is performed along with an interesting set design at the concert in New York, and David Byrne, who was a founding member and principle songwriter of Talking Heads and composed the music for this film, makes a notable contrast to Cheyenne in one scene as his fellow musician who has adapted to the changes of trends while moving on with his career.

Sorrentino also nicely captures the small human interactions between Cheyenne and others he meet on the journey. In the middle of quest, Cheyenne comes to spend some time in one nice waitress’ home, and her young son asks him to play guitar for him. Though he says he does not play music anymore, he eventually plays, and it shows that he has not lost his touch yet in spite of his disinterest.

In road movies, there is always the arrival/resolution point waiting at the finale, and “This Must Be the Place” is no exception. It eventually arrives at the finale as expected, but it comes with more complexity and surprise while satisfyingly wrapping up its contents. With the juxtaposition of seemingly mismatched elements, the movie is a sad but humorous road movie which can also be regarded as a heartfelt coming-of-age tale, and Penn’s performance effectively holds the center even when the movie looks directionless. He so completely inhabits inside his odd character that it takes some time to recognize him at one point – and that’s why it really feels like a hopeful beam of sunshine glimpsed at the end of cloudy day.

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One Response to This Must Be the Place (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : An offbeat journey of an aging rock star

  1. smrana says:

    How does it compare to Billy Wilder’s similar theme film?

    SC: No, he is a lot different from Norma Desmond.

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