This Must Be the Place

This Must Be the Place

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a little boy lost in a 50-year-old's body. A one-time rockstar who has not performed – or indeed done anything – in decades and who speaks in a high-pitched whisper, he still sports the long hair, black clothes and goth make-up, living off royalties and Tesco stocks. Offsetting his sheltered naïveté with a knack for canny aphorisms, Cheyenne drifts through a millionaire's lifestyle in Dublin, loving his grounded wife Jane (Frances McDormand), while hanging out with his 16-year-old best friend Mary (Eve Hewson). Yet when news comes of his estranged father's death, Cheyenne heads to New York for the funeral, and so embarks on an unlikely odyssey.

The black dye in Cheyenne's hair conceals roots in the Jewish orthodox community, and as the old rocker reads through his father's journals, he learns for the first time of innocence lost in the Concentration Camps, and of a grudge, nursed for over half a century, against a former SS Guard who may well be living incognito in America. Whether in search of a reconciliation with his past, a handle on his own identity or just a reason to get out of bed in the morning, Cheyenne decides to resume the quest for Alois Lange, and sets off in a borrowed pick-up on a strange journey through the American hinterlands.


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"Something's wrong here. I don't know exactly what it is, but something's wrong here." This line, repeated by Cheyenne like a mantra throughout This Must Be The Place, captures something of the film's off-kilter merging of different forms. Here the tropes of adolescent rites of passage are inhabited by a middle-aged man. Here a great American road trip is undertaken by a character who seems previously to have favoured walking and public transport. Here the hunt for an ageing Nazi war criminal is conducted by a softly spoken idiot savant in drag.

Everything is lent a surreal edge by this otherworldly protagonist (superbly embodied by Penn) who becomes, like the viewer, a touristic stranger in a strange land – and so Paolo Sorrentino brings an unexpected freshness and irony to what might otherwise have seemed overfamiliar scenarios.

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Sorrentino's previous films One Man Up, The Consequences Of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo have all shared a distinctly Italian voice and character, as well as a vocabulary of hyperreal tics that is uniquely his own. Yet for his first English-language feature, Sorrentino has opted for a filmic language deliberately reminiscent of that great European chronicler of Americana, Wim Wenders. The big skies, the mythic landscapes, the eccentricities of smalltown life, the dreams lost and found, the long, dusty roads into the past, are all there – as is Paris Texas' drifter Harry Dean Stanton in a knowing cameo as an enabler of easy travel.

Not that the film lacks Sorrentino's own quirky stamp. Wenders, one suspects, would never have woven into any of his narratives the presence of a petulant goose or a noisy bison, and the studied framing and sweeping flourishes of Torrentino's regular DP Luca Bigazzi are a recognisable brand in their own right. It is a little like the Talking Heads song which has given this film its title, and which is replayed, mashed up and transformed throughout the film.

In one scene we see David Byrne himself, now older and greyer, revisiting his hit in a topsy-turvy live performance in New York City (Byrne also provides the film's score); in another, a young boy encountered by Cheyenne in his travels insists that that the cover by Arcade Fire is in fact the original; the boy and Cheyenne also perform their own ramshackle duet of the song on a sofa in Alamogordo, New Mexico; and of course the entire film furnishes a dramatic new context of nostalgic longing for the song's lyrics to inhabit.

Sorrentino, too, finds ways of playing old songs in new styles, giving traditional filmic materials new forms, and showing the line, continuous if often winding, that can be traced from father to son and from child to adult - and he does all this in a film that is funny, moving and endlessly surprising.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2011
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An oddball retired rock star takes a roadtrip across America inspired by his dead father.
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Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Writer: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello, from a story by Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Sean Penn, Frances Mc Dormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, David Byrne, Olwen Fouéré, Shea Whigham, Liron Levo, Heinz Lieven, Simon Delaney

Year: 2011

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: Italy, France, Ireland, USA


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