It took me two full reels to get into “This Must Be The Place”–an experience that I suspect many viewers will have with the film–because I wasn’t sure if I was willing to accept Sean Penn’s singular protagonist as the real deal. Even though Penn is among the finest working actors today, the character can’t help but seem like a come-on at first due to his surface outrageousness: he’s a washed-up, visibly traumatized ‘80s rocker who speaks in a pathetic whimper and still dons his trademark big black hairdo, dangly earring, and ruby red lipstick, day in and day out. And as if finding the human in that profile wasn’t a tall enough order for Penn on its own, Cheyenne, as he’s known, is not on a mission that has anything to do with his music; he’s actually out to avenge his recently deceased, estranged father’s humiliation at the hand of a Nazi during the Holocaust.
Despite my initial skepticism, as the movie progressed, I came to realize that the character and Penn’s performance were not stunts at all. Even though Cheyenne’s mission may not be entirely based in reality, he is authentically human on an individual level. Co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino and Penn defy convention at every turn, never trivializing Cheyenne’s sad-sack persona by making him into a fame-obsessed rocker desperate to relive his glory days; instead, they use the character to explore the kind of inner-turmoil that often leads people to become artists in the first place. Cheyenne doesn’t maintain his ‘80s metal look because he wants his star back–he exiled himself to a sleepy retirement in a Dublin mansion to avoid U.S. taxes–but rather, to hide from his “real” life. The viewer is provided hints about Cheyenne’s past, which in addition to a fractured relationship with his father includes the suicide of a teenage fan, allegedly because of the dark content of his music, that inform the emotional weight that he clearly carries in every scene.
That’s not to say that “This Must Be the Place” is exceedingly dark and depressing; it actually boasts a rather lively road movie structure, which allows for episodic slices of Americana that make Cheyenne’s story more relatable. Cheyenne’s hunt for the mysterious Nazi who tortured his father takes him across the U.S., from New York to New Mexico, as he seeks out family members of the presumed (but not truly) dead man. These supporting characters, from the man’s schoolteacher wife to his adult daughter and young grandson (with whom Cheyenne collaborates on an endearing cover of the song after which the film is titled), are more than just quirky people for Cheyenne to waste time with as he moves from Point A to Point B. They bring a real sense of yearning out in Cheyenne for the familial bonds that his life sorely lacks (he’s been married for 35 years, but laments that his father never loved him). And just as filmmaker Sorrentino was able to make the viewer feel as though they were actually a part of back-room political maneuvering in his last film, “Il Divo,” he evokes an uncannily strong sense of setting in the regions of “This Must Be the Place.”
The film ultimately lacks the sort of universality required for transcendence–regardless of his realness, Cheyenne is so unique that forging a connection with him is a hit-or-miss proposition–but it nonetheless works well as an intimate character study. The conclusion is perhaps even more impressive than the journey, managing to be both pulpy and humanistic (a tricky blend) and possessing the best Harry Dean Stanton appearance in at least two decades (I won’t spoil the details). It’s hard to think of a movie this year that had more to prove, given the bogus-seeming nature of the protagonist and the premise, and prove themselves Sorrentino and Penn do.