My initial reaction to Paolo Sorrentino‘s first English language film, This Must Be The Place, is that the Italian director has sacrificed substance to achieve style; and yet this doesn’t seem right. The substance is there; I’m not sure I understand it, but it’s there.
Cheyenne, played by Sean Penn, is a bored, aging rock star that lives off his royalties in a mansion outside Dublin. When he learns that his father is dying he travels to America (on a cruise ship – he’s afraid to fly) but he arrives too late; his father has died. He hadn’t talked to his father in thirty years because he, years ago, decided that his father didn’t love him. He’s told what his father had been doing with himself all that time, hunting the nazi war criminal that had humiliated him at Auschwitz. With little apparent thought to what he will do if he finds this Nazi, Cheyenne sets out on a road trip across America to finish his father’s work.
The road trip itself is very entertaining, and I would have enjoyed it even if it had been only just a random vacation that Cheyenne was taking with no mission driving him. His interactions with the old lady school teacher, the waitress, and all of the others that he comes across (the ones that aren’t afraid to talk to him with his vintage “The Cure” hair, makeup, goth clothes and black painted toenails) are important to him and to us, even if the reason for the importance is unclear. It may have been more than enough – the story of an estranged son on a Nazi hunt on his father’s behalf, but it almost surely has as much to do with the son’s last-ditch effort for his father’s approval and his own validation. After a few days on his American adventure Cheyenne begins to wake up from his semi-comatose existence and says:
“You have to choose a moment in your life not to be afraid”.
“And have you chosen that moment?”, he’s asked.
“Yes. This one.”
Does it matter if he’s made the choice as a tribute to his father or for himself, a way to free himself from the guilt he feels about his entire life? Probably not. His wife Jane (played by Frances McDormand) asks him if he’s out “finding himself” and maybe it will take watching the movie a couple more times for me to decide if he is or isn’t. Sorrentino did not make it an obviously foregone conclusion and it may be a flaw of the movie that I can’t be sure if Cheyenne’s journey is for personal growth or just a vengeful Nazi hunt. And while it may seem odd that Cheyenne drops everything that’s going on in Dublin for the journey, it may just be that he’s less complicated than he appears, lacks ironic interpretation, and simply acts on impulse to satisfy the longing he’s felt for his father’s withheld love.
In a particularly powerful scene, early in the film, with old friend Talking Heads’ David Byrne (played by himself), Cheyenne explodes with frustration from feeling like a fraud as an artist. The lack of self-worth that inevitably stems from asking himself why a parent found him unloveable both drove him to success as an entertainer and excluded him from untethered creativity.
The acting is exceptional, the imagery eye-popping, and the screenplay, written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, smart and funny. Sorrentino is on the cutting edge of something and This Must Be The Place should make Americans sit up and take notice when it opens here.