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This Must Be the Place

2011 | 118 min | Unrated | 2.39:1

This Must Be the Place


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Theatrical release date

 31 December, 2011
 06 April, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

Box office




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Screenshots from This Must Be the Place Blu-ray

This Must Be the Place Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 1, 2012

“This Must Be the Place” is a densely atmospheric feature and oddly evocative travelogue of America. It’s a movie with an enticing set-up and a wonderfully committed performance from star Sean Penn, but it always strains to resist obvious directions, preferring to take an esoteric journey into soul of a confused man finally reaching maturity well into his middle-age. It’s a gorgeous film with endlessly fascinating cinematography, but for a two-hour sit, the plot doesn’t add up to much in the end, almost getting in the way of co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino and his quest to make the oddest road picture/revenge story around. He succeeds for much of “This Must Be the Place,” but it’s not an effort that lingers long after it concludes.

A former music superstar from the depths of the 1980s, Cheyenne (Sean Penn) now lives an uncomfortably quiet life in a Dublin estate shared with wife Jane (Frances McDormand). Spending most of his day in routine and silence, Cheyenne makes trips into town, befriending a kindred spirit in Mary (Eve Hewson). When word arrives that his estranged father, a Holocaust survivor, is gravely ill, Cheyenne makes the decision to return to America and visit before the end, combating his phobias and doubts to try to reconcile with his troubled past. Arriving too late, Cheyenne is made aware of his father’s obsession with his Auschwitz captor, a Nazi named Lange who’s currently hiding somewhere in the U.S. Gathering the barest of clues and a series of illustrations detailing Lange’s family, the former rocker takes off across the country, greeting numerous strangers and enduring a few setbacks before his target presents himself, hoping to kill Lange to bring his late father peace.

The utter triumph of “This Must Be the Place” is Sean Penn’s ability to slip inside Cheyenne and transform himself into such a distinctly sullen character completely incapable of the flashy behaviors the actor is typically drawn to. Cheyenne is an odd duck, but a personality worth a cinematic study. Dressed as a Robert Smith clone with strangled jet-black hair (which always gets in his face), carrying himself like a singer who barely squeezed out of the other side of fame alive, Penn commits to this a reclusive figure with a dazed and confused performance, realizing Cheyenne as a fiftysomething senior citizen who staggers around his property and town clinging to a cart, observing the world from a place of total weariness born from a lifetime of unsettling life experiences. It’s a marvelous work from the actor, establishing a richly defined character Sorrentino uses to guide the oddity of the screenplay, with this wobbly man buried somewhere underneath five pounds of Aqua Net and red lipstick an alien figure preparing the viewer for a screen odyssey that values random behavior, eccentric supporting characters, and an assassination mission that’s constantly shifting in urgency and perspective, rotating on stark voiceover offerings that piece together memories and feelings on the Holocaust.

While taking on a peculiar plot, “This Must Be the Place” is a decidedly visual experience, with cinematography by Luca Bigazzi generating a smoothly unnerving sense of movement and exploration that matches Cheyenne’s foray into American life. Sorrentino selects uncomfortable and strange locations to aid the picture’s disorientation, finding tremendous inspiration when the action shifts to America, emphasizing the tentative, aspiring killer’s appearance in the land of simple folk, with visits to bars and hotels instigating uneasy interactions with the locals, including an impromptu ping pong lesson with teen boys. Music also plays a role in “This Must Be the Place,” finding David Byrne accepting a small role as himself, allowing Cheyenne to express his fears to a peer, also supplying the effort with a musical performance that adds to the movie’s mission to bend perspective wherever possible.

The Nazi-hunting motivation doesn’t produce a type of thriller experience initially promised and hinted throughout. The screenplay instead aims for a leisurely pace of introductions and accidents, sizing up those who manage to pull a response of out Cheyenne along the way, including an unstoppable businessman (Shea Whigham) and Lange’s lonely granddaughter (Kerry Condon). Those expecting a more robust conclusion would be wise to note that Sorrentino is more interested in the journey than the resolution.

“This Must Be the Place” isn’t emotionally or dramatically satisfying in the least, but it has a visual fingerprint that’s worth a look, boosted by an undeniably memorable performance from Penn. It’s best appreciated for its originality of thought and interpretation of American life via an Italian director, not for its dedication to the urgent particulars of its outlandish plot.

Starring: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten
Director: Paolo Sorrentino

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